The Re-Organization of Johnson & Loney | The Process Report

The Re-Organization of Johnson & Loney

A large part of why the Rays are among the American League leaders in runs scored has been the surprising play of newcomers James Loney and Kelly Johnson.

Loney has spent most of the season near the top of the batting average leaderboard and remains in the top-25 in all three slash categories. He has done so while playing elite defense. Johnson, on the other hand, will not win any batting titles or Gold Gloves. That said, he’s still provided considerable punch while changing positions on the fly. The thirty-one-year-old has started at four positions this year—including his first career big-league starts at first and third base. He has belted 10 home runs and earned a .202 ISO which ranks third on the team behind Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce.

Both Johnson and Loney have made physical changes which have aided in their early-season success. Loney re-established a leg lift in his pre-swing motion that has potentially led to better timing and a more powerful stroke. Johnson opened up his stance and dropped his hands, giving him a better look at—and a quicker path to—the ball. He also tightened his strike zone.

Call it regression, reality, or just the ups-and-downs of a six-month season, but Johnson and Loney have cooled off considerably in recent weeks. Despite the positive changes it was unlikely either would maintain their early-season success levels for the duration of the year. While some of their recent struggles were expected, both players could help themselves by re-organizing their strike zones so to speak.

Loney has had considerable success turning pitches on the outer half of the plate into base hits. Meanwhile, the bulk of his extra-base hits have come in the inner half. With that in mind, teams have been pitching him further away in recent weeks. The first baseman’s swing has followed.

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Loney focused on the inner half of the plate to start the season (Apr/May).

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As pitchers have pitched Loney more and more outside, his swing has moved with them.

Excellent bat control and long arms have allowed Loney to make contact on these pitches; however, the further away from the plate you get, the contact made is generally weaker. Nearly half of the balls he has hit in the month of June have stayed on the ground. His strikeout-to-walk rate has also suffered as teams exploit his willingness to chase fastballs up and out of the zone. Don’t be surprised if we see more catchers nearly stand up on him with two strikes.

Johnson came to the Rays with a higher-than-average strikeout rate. The results have followed him to Tampa Bay, but the process has changed a bit. He is chasing and missing fewer two-strike pitches while seeing more called strike threes. During this most reason stretch of games, he has expanded his zone a bit; especially on fastballs (including sinkers and cutters).

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Johnson’s swing rate on fastballs in Apr/May were more concentrated within the zone.

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Johnson’s swing rate on fastballs in June is sporadic with an increased amount of chases.

While expanding on the fastball is not helping Johnson, he is also struggling on softer pitches—some of which have fallen in the zone. Re-organizing the strike zone is not just about taking pitches out of the zone, but knowing which pitches to handle within it. If a pitcher makes a good pitch with less than two strikes, there are times where taking a strike and seeing another throw is not the worst case scenario.

It seems simple enough, but swinging at the right strikes and taking balls may go along way in getting both players on track.

Data and images courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info.



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