James Loney – 2016 Player Card
As we count down the days until the blessed return of baseball we’ll be bringing snapshots from a variety of angles for each of the significant players on this year’s upcoming Rays team. The format will be similar for each player and then we want to take a look at an individual thing for each guy towards the end of each card. Think of these as a quick cheat sheet on what a player looks like. You can use the Corey Dickerson card as a walkthrough, of sorts. Now at the plate – James Loney
James Loney has been in quite the sustained free fall since he had some of the best performance of his career in his first season as a Ray. We can see he has been a free swinger for a while now with some success, but also a bunch of less than success. He has never been a big power guy, but that really closed down last year due to hand injuries affecting his ability to drive the ball. It didn’t help that the first DL stints of his career saw him cultivate mass to the point that even when he did split a gap he had to pull up at first for fear of splitting his pants.
Here’s a look at the pitch location for his singles (on the left) and his extra base hits (on the right) throughout his career (yellow) and in 2015 (black). James loooooves to shoot chili peppers up Lee Jantzen’s ass. Look at all those pitches outer half and away that he can just poke over the left side of the infield and take a jog down to first. That mostly played the same this past year. He covers most of the plate, with the exception of the lefty nitro zone down-and-in. It’s not that he is turning those pitches into doubles and homers, either.
Most of his extra base hits this past season were either down-and-away, think slicers knifing into the gap and running to the wall, and a couple of pitches up-and-in. We have seen him ever-so-often turn and burn on this latter pitch with some capability of depositing it into the rightfield bleachers, but it’s pretty rare. James just loves that pitch out, over and away too much. Unlike some of the other players profiled so far I don’t think you’ll see him all of a sudden start pulling fly balls for power.
Switching gears I wanted to take a look at his production by pitch type to see what went so wrong last year. Let’s start with all of the pitches that he saw:
The change is rarely in the zone, while the fastball is the most often. These figures have mostly held steady the past years, especially the total, though you see some oscillation in the breaking balls. With the fastball having the highest likelihood of being in the rulebook strike zone then you would think he would swing pretty often at this pitch:
You’d be right and that trend has mostly been increasing throughout his entire career with a sizeable jump last year. It begs the question of how much is too much? Not all fastballs are good pitches to hit. Even those within the friendly confines of the zone so I’d like to see him tighten up his selectivity there. An added bonus would be that he might not be flailing so often at all those change ups. We see a very high swing rate on the cambio despite just seeing above that it’s rarely a good pitch to hit. I think these two things suggest that his bat speed is declining as it does for everyone as they journey through their 30’s. He still seems to recognize spin pretty well as he’s swinging enough to keep pitchers honest, but not so much that they’ve got him chasing out of the zone on a routine basis. Get a little less swing-happy on the straighter stuff and it could pay dividends. Let’s look at his park-adjusted run values per 100 pitches to see why this matters:
He just posted the worst RV*/100 of his career on the change up, the second worst of his career on the fastball and continued to put up very good numbers on the bendy stuff. I think this reinforces the notion that his hands are slowing, because we see he continues to post good numbers on the breaking ball. He got absolutely brutalized by the change last year. If that came with exceptional results against the fastball then all could be forgiven, but that wasn’t the case. Let’s narrow our focus to just the pitches that he took a cut at:
We see a similar story here for his RV*/100. We can now infer that a lot of his success against the change the past couple of years came on his swings, which means it wasn’t just due to him taking the pitch for a ball. Maybe that is something that bounces back some, but the last two years were also much better than the prior years of his career so maybe not. Looking at the fastball, and taking out the very bad 2012 and the very good 2013, you can see almost a straight line decline, which I also don’t think is going to magically turn around. Let’s take a look at his swinging strike rate:
His overall whiff rate has mostly stayed the same throughout his career and that’s mostly due to the fastball whiffs holding steady. No surprise that we see continued weakness with the change up, but the breaking ball is maybe a little surprising considering how effective he has looked against the pitch. Contrast this with his in play percentage:
The breaking ball spike is rather interesting because it means that only around 20% of his breaking ball swings were fouled off pitches. The foul rate on his other pitches was around 40% so I don’t know what that means, but find it rather odd. He was either flat out missing or managing to put most breaking balls in play, and had pretty good results when he did so. The other takeaway is that incredible spike in his fastball in play rate. When taken in conjunction with his run values you can infer that just because he was putting the ball between the chalk that didn’t necessarily mean it was good contact. Perhaps it’s possible that he was trading some power for contact, which didn’t really do a whole lot to boost his overall production. Lastly, let’s look at just those balls in play:
Again, we see the abysmal productivity against the change up and further erosion of anything that could possibly be considered good against the fastball, which seems like the culmination of a long term, gradual decline. The breaking ball is his bitch, which could bode well going forward, but if you can’t hit the fastball you don’t get to play in the Show.
Something I have failed to mention is that the reason this past season saw so many of his results being the second worst of his career is that 2012 was even more miserable. It’s possible that he was also playing banged up in 2012 or that he saw the writing on the wall, put the work in over the offseason, and then came back in 2013 for the best season of his career. Either of those scenarios are applicable to 2015. His hands are his best tool and they were never 100% last year. It looks like he got himself in good shape over the offseason so with better health and fitness perhaps we could see a bounce back in 2016. I don’t think he’ll do what he did in his first season with the Rays, but something between 2013 and 2014 is a useful piece. That’s the type of player the Rays were hoping to get when they inked this three-year pact.
His batting average on contact has a little bit of room to improve on the fastball and he has a ton of room for growth against the change up when comparing last year to his career. If his legs and hands are fine that might even yield a bit more pop:
He just had the worst season of his career from a power perspective. This is due to both the batted ball authority, but also the fact that he couldn’t run so even if he did square up a ball he was relegated to first base. He didn’t have a single extra base hit against the change up. His ISO on contact was sub-.100 against the other two types of pitches, which have tracked fairly closely throughout his career. You’ll also notice that he did basically the same thing against those two pitches in 2014 with only uncharacteristic power against the change boosting his overall line. This leads me to believe that even the minuscule power he showed in the past is probably gone for good.
James Loney could see more success in 2016 due to regression, better health, and fitness. He could tighten up his zone so that he’s swing at juicier pitches allowing him to make more contact and get some more balls to fall in. However, I think any chance at more power would be a small one. Loney could be a contributor as a six-hole type hitter that can drive in whoever is left on base after the middle of the order does their job, but I wouldn’t reasonably expect more than that. Lastly, there’s a good chance that even these modest expectations are too high, which would leave him as a yoke on the neck of both the lineup and the roster as it is incredibly difficult to carry a 1B that flat out can’t hit anymore. My guess is that the Rays will give him enough rope to hang himself and we’ll have our answer soon.