Going Under The Hood With James Loney
When the Rays signed James Loney this off-season many scoffed at the notion of bringing in a light-hitting first baseman to compete in the heavy-hitting American League East. At the Process Report, we identified Loney as a potential player of interest for several reasons. Most notably, he was a player with a perceived value that was likely lower than his actual value. It is not an ideal strategy but when dealing with limited resources, it is best to allocate them in areas that may be of greater importance or those that operate with shallower talent pools.
Loney is not a terrible as some would lead you to believe. He had an awful season in 2012, but was still a .282/.339/.419 career hitter when he signed with Tampa Bay. Though not great, it is slightly a above-league-average line. More so, his bat is linked to a elite glove even if the position is not at the top of the defensive spectrum.
Looking at Loney’s 2012 for a brief minute, he hit the ball on the ground more than any other season sans his debut campaign in 2006. His percentage of swings were up overall, and even more so on pitches outside of the zone. This may have been an attempt to catch up for lost production. Despite the extra swings, his contact rate remained stellar. When he got elevation on the ball, he was able to hit them on a line even if they did not always fall for hits. Considering these “under the hood” items as Joe Maddon would say, one could come to the conclusion that Loney was a bit “unlucky” last year.
Luck may have indeed played a role in his misfortunes, but I also did a quick “under the hood” check on Loney’s mechanics. From what this amateur eye can tell, Loney likes to vary his leg kicks. At times he barely lifts his foot. In other instances, he folds his body in almost a jack knife position. Look at these images at the point of the pitcher’s release:
As a member of the Red Sox on the left, Loney barely lifts his foot. The result of this plate appearance was positive—an RBI single—however, there was little elevation on a poorly located fastball by Jeremy Hellickson. Now, a member of the Rays on the right, Loney’s 6-foot-3 frame is crammed into a smaller package. His hands are back more and his front elbow is lower. His foot drops quicker and the transfer of weight is fluid. The result of this swing was a double in the air that landed near the base of the right-field wall.
These two at-bats may seemed cherry picked, but I watched a good number of Loney’s swings and the underlying theme was he likes to change his looks often which may or may not be the cause for inconsistency. I saw the higher leg kick in swings as far back as 2008. Similarly, I watch his first at-bat with the Rays—a swinging strikeout on an elevated fastball—and did not see much of a kick at all. Though I came to no definitive conclusion, it appears as if the higher kick results in greater lift on the ball. Grounders that find holes in the defense are good too; however, it is probably not the best long-term plan for a slower-footed first baseman (see Casey Kotchman). After play on Sunday, Loney’s groundball rate was below 30 percent.
It is unknown if Loney just decided to pick up the leg kick again or if the Rays made the suggestion. That said, the results of the past two weeks have been encouraging. If he can lock in a motion that allows him to drive the ball, we may see his extra-base hit number normalize to pre-2012 levels (around 40 XBH per season) or improve. If that is the case, much like his pre-swing routine, the Rays signing of Loney will have been well-timed.