March 19, 2004
The View from Florida
As Dayn Perry recently noted in his article on the confluence of statistical analysis and traditional scouting, both tools serve legitimate purposes in attempting to project major league players. Standing alone, neither is as useful as both paired together in an intelligent manner. However, some prospects tend to polarize the discussion, showing the different values placed on specific skills by those who lean to one side of the discussion or the other. BP has been at the forefront of using statistics to help evaluate minor league players, but not every top prospect will be found among the leader boards.
James Loney is a perfect example of someone BP ranked highly despite a superficially unimpressive performance during the 2003 season. At first glance, it is hard to get excited about the numbers he produced in Vero Beach last year. He hit .276, drawing only 43 walks and knocking 41 extra-base hits, leading to a pedestrian .338 on base-percentage and .400 slugging average for a .277 EqA that ranked seventh on his own club. As a first baseman, that isn't the kind of production that usually makes people sit up and take notice. However, a deeper look inside the numbers reveals a more detailed story.
At the end of his professional debut in 2002, Loney's left wrist was broken when he was hit by a pitch, ending his season. Wrist injuries are notorious for lingering, and Loney was clearly bothered by the recovery during the early part of 2003. After his first 45 games in the Florida State League, his line was .233/.283/.337. From game 46 through the end of the season, he hit .301/.369/.436, a much more impressive performance than his final totals would indicate. As Clay Davenport noted, that is the difference between a projected peak EqA of .289 versus .316, or roughly the difference between the 2003 versions of J.T. Snow and Nick Johnson. Usually, selective sampling is frowned upon, but the injury provides a legitimate reason for the dramatic improvement as the season goes along. At full health, he returned to his prior levels of ball-whacking, finishing the year as one of the best hitters in the lower minors at the tender age of 19.
Youth is certainly one of the main factors on Loney's side. He will spend 2004 in Double-A at the age of 20, putting him squarely on the fast track to the major leagues. Looking through his list of comparable players provided by PECOTA yields names like Hank Blalock, Miguel Cabrera, Sean Burroughs, and Adrian Beltre, who all arrived in the majors before their 22nd birthdays. It also includes players who have stalled in Double-A--Adrian Gonzalez being the most notable--or have yet to establish themselves, and PECOTA is clearly picking up on the risk of getting too excited about players on the wrong side of the defensive spectrum who haven't tasted Double-A pitching yet. However, Loney gives a plethora of reasons for excitement beyond his age.
When the Dodgers announced him as a first baseman with the 19th pick in the 2002 draft, it was considered a tremendous gamble. Selecting a high school first baseman in the first round is rare enough--only five have been selected in the past four years--but taking one who was scouted almost exclusively as a left-handed pitcher appeared to be a major stretch. I had a chance to watch him in Vero Beach this week, and it is hard to believe that he was considered a better pitching prospect than a hitter coming out of high school.
With most players his age, it is relatively easy to find a mechanical flaw in the swing or something that will need to be adjusted as he moves up the ladder, but Loney could sell instructional videos on hitting technique. He has a level, line-drive swing, but gets the bat through the zone very quickly, and his strength allows him to drive the ball consistently. His plate coverage is outstanding, allowing him to make consistently hard contact on pitches away and leading to a large number of opposite-field line drives. He already possesses major league power to right field, and can turn on good fastballs inside due to his impressive bat speed. Despite the mediocre walk totals last year, he is a selective hitter with a good approach at the plate. We still need to see him face consistent breaking balls and make the proper adjustments, but his skills suggest that it should be a fairly easy transition.
While evaluating defense during spring training drills and Grapefruit League games is an extremely inexact science, I certainly liked what I saw from Loney in the field. He showed both good reactions and footwork while covering ground to his left and right. At 6'3" and 200 pounds, he is not as large as a typical first baseman, and is quicker than you expect. He will never lead the league in stolen bases, but it is easy to see why the Dodgers expect his glove to eventually make him one of the best defensive first basemen in the game. Arm strength is as unimportant at first base as any position, but his terrific arm and surprising agility make a future move to a more demanding position a possibility, if the need arises.
His offensive package is about as good as you will find in a minor league player, and it is hard to find anything to criticize. We can nitpick over the need to draw more walks, but he is far from an undisciplined hack. He is the rare young talent who is a developed product and has the skills necessary to be a capable major league player quickly. Watching him take swings next to Robin Ventura, it was hard to make a case that Loney isn't already the Dodgers' best option at first base. Intelligent player development strategies will have Loney starting the year in Jacksonville, but it is far from a reach to suggest that he could be banging down the door in Los Angeles some time this summer.
When BP ranked James Loney as the 25th-best prospect in the game, despite average numbers in the lower minors, a history of injury problems, and the fact that he plays the easiest position on the diamond to find talent, it was clearly done with the conviction that he had a chance to become a terrific hitter. After watching his improvement this spring, one could make a case that he is already a terrific hitter, and it may not be long before fans in the city of angels are hearing his name in pre-game introductions.
David Cameron spent enough time in minor league ballparks last year that the South Atlantic League claimed him as a dependant on their tax returns. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.