James Loney’s Tragic Pop-ups

Much has been made over the last few weeks about how James Loney (in addition to Russell Martin) has yet to hit his first homer, more than six weeks into the season. While it’s certainly disappointing, it didn’t bother me all that much; with guys like Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Casey Blake, and – until the you-know-what – Manny Ramirez showing good power, Loney’s homer totals were of secondary importance to the desire that he simply produce as part of an all-around game. Get hits, drive in runners, play good defense: that’s what we need to see from James Loney. The power, the idea went, would come.

loneylooks.jpgSo it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I actually looked into Loney’s season thus far, and came upon one unmistakable truth: forget the homers, Loney’s been just plain bad. I think his hot start (6 for his first 12) and the fact that we still saw a batting average over .300 four times a night on the TV screen even through April 17th has somewhat obscured just how lousy he’s been overall. Since that first 6-12 stint against the Padres, Loney is hitting just .239/.326/.301.

For the season, his OPS of .665 puts him at 156th in the majors, behind even magical pixie elf David Eckstein. Among first baseman, it looks even worse – that gets him 26th out of 27 qualifying 1B, ahead of only Derrek Lee, who’s 33 and fighting a neck injury. But you don’t watch David Eckstein every day, and you don’t watch Derrek Lee every day. What does a .665 OPS mean to you? Well, it’s just slightly ahead of Juan Pierre, 2008. So what it means is: not good.

Worse, this isn’t just a slump for James. After bursting onto the scene in 2007 to force the first baseman’s job away from Nomar Garciaparra, his OPS has steadily dropped from .919 to .772 to this year’s low, and it really started at the end of 2008, where he was brutal in September, putting up only a .526 OPS.

So what, exactly, is causing this? I think the numbers (almost all of these from FanGraphs) might surprise you…

1) He’s not striking out more.

Actually, he’s striking out far less. In 2007, he K’d in 14.0% of his appearances. In 2008, that stayed about the same at 14.3%. So far in 2009? That’s dropped to just 8.0%, which is excellent in a league that strikes out an average of 19.9% of the time.

2) He’s not grounding out more.

He’s been remarkably consistent with this the last few years, hitting grounders 42.1%, 42.7%, and 43.1% of the time.

3) He’s not hitting fewer hard line drives.

As with K rate, this has actually improved, from 21.5% to 22.1% to 24.1% this season.

4) He’s only hitting slightly fewer fly balls.

This has dropped, from 36.4% to 34.2% to 32.8%. It’s not exactly a good trend, but it’s also not so alarming as to really raise any huge flags. 

5) His outstanding luck has betrayed him a bit.

In 2007, his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was an excellent yet completely unsustainable .352, against a league average of .306. In 2008, that was .320, which was a drop, but still good. In 2009, that’s come all the way down to .287, which is below the league average of .303. 

That explains the drop in batting average to some extent, but it doesn’t really cover the power loss.

No, what’s really killing him is…

6) Holy crap, is he popping out a lot!

In 2007, his IFFB (Infield Fly Ball) % was 13.0. In 2008, that fell to 8.5%.

In 2009, so far? 28.5%.

What exactly is causing that, I can’t say. His discipline stats (i.e. % of balls swung on in and outside the strike zone, contact made on each, etc.) are all roughly in line with his career averages, so it doesn’t seem as though his approach has changed at the plate. But there is no question that this huge rise in infield fly balls is cripping his overall output.  

I’m not suggesting it’s time to bench or dump Loney – not yet. He’s still only 25, and either way there’s no viable alternative to him right now. But I do think it would be a great idea to give him the next two games off, partially to give him time to step away and think about what’s going on… and partially because he’s been absolutely useless against lefties this year, hitting just .148/.207/.148 against them. With the Phillies throwing Jamie Moyer and Cole Hamels, you’d probably rather see lefty-crusher Mark Loretta (.804 career OPS vs. southpaws, though only 2-10 this year) at the plate than Loney.

James, we still believe in you, and the advanced stats show that things aren’t as bad as they seem. It’s just that, with Manny gone, it’s really time to step up and turrn some of those pop-ups into doubles. And a homer every now and then wouldn’t be too bad either.

Update, 4:31pm PST: Loney just popped up to second base in his first at-bat against Jamie Moyer. Heh.