Is It Time to Believe in James Loney Again?

After getting on base twice and scoring a run in last night’s 6-2 victory over the woeful Pirates, James Loney has now managed to make it on base in 10 of his last 11 games, and – believe or not – has actually been killing the ball for the last month. Dig those OPS lines!

Last 7 days 5 21 16 5 6 1 0 2 6 4 2 .375 .476 .813 1.289 13
Last 14 days 12 49 41 8 15 1 0 3 10 7 3 .366 .449 .610 1.059 25
Last 28 days 23 94 80 11 24 3 0 5 14 13 8 .300 .394 .525 .919 42

James-Loney.jpgHe’s managed to pull his OPS+ over 100, making him a slightly above-average hitter, and while that’s still not good for a first baseman - by VORP, he’s just the 23rd best 1B in baseball this year, tied with Ryan Garko -  if he really has made a change, then regardless of what the seasonal stats read, the James Loney we see in the playoffs might have no relation to the one who sucked his way through May with a .661 OPS.

So what’s changed? In the middle of his May rut, I ran a piece on his struggles, noting that while his K rates, FB rates, GB rates, and line drive rates weren’t substantially different from his past, one thing was:

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%.

Well, he’s certainly fixed that problem – his 2009 IFFB% is now down to 9.7, below his average of 9.9 – but that alone isn’t enough to turn him around this much, especially since even as recently as August he was still lousy (.660 OPS).

There’s also this idea floating around, which if true should earn Bob Schaefer an Emmy, a Pulitzer, and an Oscar:

James Loney has drawn some criticism for a lack of power, but two of his nine home runs were hit in a span of nine games leading up to Friday and the first baseman said he thinks he might know why: He has stopped wearing a mouth guard.

Loney made the change at the insistence of bench coach Bob Schaefer, who told him people lose strength when biting down on something.

Loney said that Schaefer demonstrated this to him by having him stick both of his arms out to his side, parallel to the floor, as he wore the mouthpiece.

Schaefer was able to push down his arms.

Schaefer had Loney stick his arms out again, only this time with Loney not wearing a mouthpiece.

Schaefer couldn’t push his arms down.

“Weird, huh?” Loney said.

Asked if there was any scientific basis to Schaefer’s theory, trainer Stan Conte replied, “None that I’m aware of.”

The idea that he’s somehow gained more strength from not wearing a mouthguard is almost certainly a huge load of BS, but the effect of believing that you have more strength is invaluable. In many ways, that was the largest benefit of steroid use – it’s one thing to be slightly bigger and recover slightly faster, but to be supremely confident because you believe you have an edge on everyone could have been more valuable than any added muscle mass. 

Now, that article doesn’t say exactly when Loney stopped wearing the mouthguard, but it was published on September 5, a Saturday, and says “in the nine games leading up to Friday”, September 4. That would cover the nine games between August 26 – September 3, and wouldn’t you know it, on August 25th, after an 0-5 disaster in the second game of a doubleheader against the Rockies (edit: okay, just a regular game – thanks to commenter ThrowDeuce), Loney’s OPS sank to .724, the lowest it had been in months.

On August 26th, the first game of that nine game span, he went 2-4 with a homer, and in the 19 games since August 25th, his line is an outstanding .344/.442/.609 for a 1.051 OPS.

By comparison, in the 19 games leading up to August 25th, his line was a putrid .194/.289/.239, and just a .528 OPS. It’s hard to say that a simple mouthguard change could really make a difference like that, but it’s also hard to ignore an OPS that literally doubles

So is James Loney “back”? I’m not ready to say that yet, and no matter what happens be prepared for a slew of October articles about how the Dodgers are at a huge disadvantage at 1B against either Albert Pujols or Ryan Howard – as though not being as good as those guys is somehow an insult. The point is, if Loney’s found something that works for him, be it mental, physical, animal, mineral, or vegetable, and he can keep up some semblance of his current hot streak, then it’s not going to matter that he’s sucked for half the year; it’s only going to matter what kind of player he in October.

(No, I’m not ignoring his insane home/road splits, which currently stand at nearly 250 points of OPS and a 12/0 HR advantage on the road. It’s just that I have absolutely no idea what to make of that, and it’s nothing new – his career splits are 200 points of OPS and a 33/11 HR advantage for the road. For whatever reason, the man does not like Dodger Stadium. Hell, maybe he should be traded, if only for his own good.) 

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  1. [...] Gonzalez. Still, there is some reason for optimism here. Starting in mid-August (possibly after Bob Schaefer made him stop wearing his mouthguard) Loney ended the year on a scorching hot streak, hitting .317/.391/.455 in September before hitting [...]

  2. [...] this all sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote a very similar post last September, in the middle of his hot streak. All he did after that was keep it up – improve, even [...]