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December 2, 2011

The Great Debaters

Ike Davis vs. James Loney

by Derek Carty and Jason Collette

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In Favor of James Loney by Jason Collette
Ike Davis versus James Loney. This should be an easy decision on catchphrases alone. “I Like Ike” versus... umm... “I’m Looney for Loney”? One plays in a park being reconfigured for hitters after being a hindrance to power hitters the past few years while the other plays in a division with impossible pitching and a home ballpark that has never been terribly kind to power hitters. Career-wise, Davis owns a .271/.357/.460 slash line in his first 750 plate appearances while Loney is at .288/.346/.432 over 3018 plate appearances. Davis hit 19 home runs in the old Citi Field configuration in his full season of play in 2010, while Loney has never hit more than 15 home runs in any season for the Dodgers. The decision is easy: give me Loney.

This is not a knock on Davis, however, as there is little not to like about him. He turns 25 just before the season starts and has showed above-average power in his major league career thus far, which he pairs with a great aptitude for taking walks. My qualm with him is he has struck out in 23 percent of his plate appearances and swings and misses above the league average. Given that he is never going to help in stolen bases, the contact issues limit his batting average upside as it did in 2010 when he hit .264 over the course of a full season. Last season’s .302 average was a bonus, but it also came in just 129 plate appearances along with a BABIP that's 23 points above where it was in a full 2010 season.

Additionally, Davis has a rather odd pattern going on with his numbers. While this is likely mere selectivity bias, in the first and last months of the season, Davis is a monster. In 152 plate appearances in the month of April, he has a 988 OPS, and in 124 plate September appearances, he has a 952 OPS. In between those enticing months are OPS’s of 742, 715, 746, and 702. If we combine those groupings, we have a .332/.426.552 slash line over 232 good plate appearances and a .238/.321/.410 slash line across 420 bad plate appearances. On top of that, he’s Ike freaking Davis and plays for the Mets, so if you thought you were going to be able to draft him at some kind of discount at the draft table, think again. A lot of people liked Ike coming into last season and his numbers pre-injury last year did not do much to quell that excitement. Simply put, this is exactly the type of player that is going to be reached for by players in national competitions and one that won’t come at a discount in an auction. Maybe it is the Rays fan buried within my analytical role that is always looking for the fantasy bargain that attracts me to Loney, but I am apt to go after the young guy that has continually disappointed in hopes that he has another good year in him somewhere.

Since Loney hit .331 with a 919 OPS in his first (near) full season of 2007, it has been all downhill for him as he has not posted an OPS higher than 772 since that year. His batting average had been in a four-year slide until this past season, when he raised his average 21 points. His OPS was in a similar slide, but his work late in 2011 raised it 32 points from 2010. That late work was incredibly impressive considering how poorly the first half of the season went for Loney. That first half saw him hit a pedestrian .268 with a 653 OPS—numbers not even worth a replacement level label. In the second half, however, he posted a shocking .320 average with a 914 OPS, with most of that damage coming in the final two months as he hit .357 with a 1026 OPS over those last 192 plate appearances. That second half surge also happened to coincide with the Dodgers firing hitting coach Jeff Pentland and bringing in former pinch-hitter extraordinaire Dave Hansen. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but in this case, it just might. Chad Moriyama did an excellent job in breaking down what changed with Loney before and after the change in hitting coach, and our own Mike Petriello posted a similar article showing the effects of the hitting coach change, both highlighting the same positive changes for Loney. Even former BP fantasy editor Marc Normandin chimed in:

Whether Colletti is on target or not with his positive outlook is another matter. We are talking about fewer than 200 plate appearances, after all, and a whole lot can happen in a stretch like that. Plenty of players succeed like mad for short stretches of a month or two, only to never be that productive again. Then again, there are others. Take this .257/.339/.606 September 2009 from a certain Toronto Blue Jay, for one. (Hint: It’s Jose Bautista.) Cases like Bautista, who was a career .386 slugger prior to that month, are a rarity, but with the right changes made to a hitter’s approach, wholesale changes are possible. They are just unlikely, is all.

Loney isn’t about to be confused for Joey Bats anytime soon, but if there is some major change in his swing mechanics that helped him succeed where he previously failed, then maybe Colletti is on to something. Of course, that “if” is as huge as the difference between Loney and a productive first baseman has been in the past.

Loney is a guy that I have watched fondly since his days in the Southern League when I lived in Jacksonville and could watch him play for the Suns, liking what I saw in his swing despite the less than desirable results. When the success started happening in the second half of the season, it was two weeks after I acquired him in one of my leagues so I was keenly aware of just how well he was doing down the stretch. Reading the work Moriyama and Petriello put out and seeing that Normandin had a reaction to their work that was similar to mine increases my desire to take yet another flyer on Loney in 2012 in the later rounds while someone reaches for the catchier nickname in the earlier rounds, limiting their profit margins.

In Favor of Ike Davis by Derek Carty
It’s not that I dislike James Loney; it’s just that I don’t see much upside in him. The guy is what he is: a 28-year-old, low power, solid batting average hitter who plays the most plentiful of all roto positions and whose value is largely determined by playing time (which is not assured), lineup position, and supporting cast. That has value, especially in NL-only leagues, but at the point in mixed-league drafts where Loney is going to be picked, I’d much rather wager on a guy who has greater upside—especially when I also happen to think he has superior skills. Yes, it's possible that Loney has made some mechanical adjustments, but we're still only looking at a barely-above-average 12 percent HR/FB from July 20 (the day of the change) forward, and if Loney gets off to a slow start, he could well get benched.

Ike Davis’ most prominent tool is his power, and boy does he have that in spades. I’d easily grade his raw power out as a 65 or 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and you can see in his HitTracker chart just how far he’s capable of hitting the ball.

With the Mets moving the Citi Field fences in quite a bit in right and right-center field—spots where Ike displays a lot of power to—it should only make it easier for Davis to display his monster power in 2012. It wouldn’t be hard to envision the 25-year-old approaching 40 home runs one day, and 25-30 should be a piece of cake this season as long as he remains healthy and doesn’t have any lingering effects from the ankle injury he sustained in 2011. The good news there is that he’s recently declared himself 100 percent healed, which is excellent news with so much time remaining before spring training.

The knock against Davis is that some feel he’ll be a batting average liability. While he’s unlikely to bat .302 like he did to start 2011, he’s also not going to be a .230 hitter in the way a lot of guys with his kind of raw power do. He might have similar raw power to a Mark Reynolds type of player, but his strikeout rates aren’t going to be nearly as massive. In fact, he’s been barely below average in terms of strikeouts in the majors, posting a 22.5 percent rate. While Davis’ swing isn’t exactly compact, he’s also not going to whiff incredibly often, and his great patience and approach at the plate will allow him to see quality pitches in order to post good BABIPs. His BABIP was always outstanding in the minors, and that’s carried over a great deal in his brief time in the majors.

 Ike isn’t going to steal any bases, but a .270 average and 25-30 home runs from a middle-of-the-order hitter in a decent lineup is going to have a lot of value in fantasy leagues. He’s currently being selected as the 18th first baseman off the board in the 17th round of Mock Draft Central drafts, and that screams “Value!” to me. I’d gladly take him before the Gaby Sanchez, Paul Goldschmidt, Mark Trumbo, and Justin Morneau types that are being selected ahead of him, and without question I’d take him over James Loney.  Jason says that in tougher leagues he could become a trendy pick, forcing one to reach to acquire him, but I'm not sure that's true. In the 15-team Tout Wars mixed league last season, he cost just $6.  In the 14-team Yahoo! Friends & Family expert league, he went in the 13th round. Even in the 13-team LABR NL-only league, he only went for $16. Given that he missed almost the entire 2011 season, I find it hard to believe that he'll be more expensive than that in 2012.  Yes, he's likely to still cost a little more than Loney, but he'll be worth it.

Jason Collette is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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