It’s been a recurring question for the last two seasons. It’s the most recent story on the Rotoworld Dodgers feed. It was the subject of a story in the Los Angeles Times just a few days ago, and it’s time to look at it in more depth.
When will James Loney hit for power?
Oh, sure, Loney’s saying all the right things. “I feel this is the year,” he said to Dylan Hernandez in the Times article. “I feel stronger,” he added. “It’s the strongest I’ve ever felt.” Which is all well and good, except spring training is littered with the corpses of guys who said they were in the best shape of their lives. Remember how confident Russell Martin was last year? Yeah, how did that work out?
But in Loney’s case, he’s got a lot more going for him than his boastful words. Without completely repeating the article I wrote on this exact topic in the 2010 Maple Street Press Dodgers Annual (on sale now! Featuring Dodger Thoughts, True Blue LA, Dodger Divorce, Memories of Kevin Malone, Josh Suchon, BP‘s Jay Jaffe, and so much more!) I’m putting it out there right now: James Loney is going to take an enormous leap forward in 2010.
Really, the problem thus far has been that Loney’s been a little underrated. No, I’m not going to defend the .399 SLG from a year ago, which is completely unacceptable from just about any position but especially so from first base. It’s just that I think people forget how incredibly young Loney still is, mostly because this is a guy who’s been in the minds of Dodger fans for quite a while. He’s about to start his fifth season in the bigs, and it’s been nearly 8 years since he was a first round pick. To many casual fans, that’s long enough that he should stop being a “prospect” and start “shaping up or shipping out”.
Well, it’s fortunate for the rest of us that casual fans don’t run the team, because it’s easy to forget that despite his career in the organization, Loney is still just 25 years old. He made his debut at only 21 (yes, just months older than Clayton Kershaw was for his debut) and tantalized us all with some big displays of power in parts of 2006 and 2007 before settling into a nearly identical 2008 and 2009 seasons which many saw as a disappointment. Yet if he didn’t have the immediate splash guys like Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols did, those years were far from disappointing. In fact, they’ve set him up to make a huge leap this year, and here’s why.
He’s still just 25 – and has established himself as a viable major league hitter. Two seasons of 13 homers and OPS+ scores that are just slightly above-average (103 and 104) aren’t really sexy, to be sure. At shortstop, that might make you a star, but in a National League with first basemen like Pujols, Howard, Fielder, and the rest, that puts you in the back of the pack. Yet if you look at his baseball-reference page, something jumps out at you immediately: in each of his four seasons (two partial), his OPS+ is in triple digits. He’s been at least league-average or better every year. Considering he was ages 22-25 in those seasons and still learning his way around the bigs, that’s impressive. If Loney were to keep pumping out seasons like the last two, it’s still good enough that he’d have a big-league career for years to come. Yet very few players peak before their 26th birthday. 2008-09 may not have been eye-catching, but considering the ages he was during them, it gives him a nice base to work from. In fact, what he’s done at his young age is pretty notable considering…
His comparables are impressive. At baseball-reference, they have what they call “Similarity Scores”, which compare a player to every other player in history at his position, through each year of age. Check out some of Loney’s 1B comparables through age 25…
1) Jeff Bagwell
2) Ted Kluszewski
6) Rafael Palmeiro
7) High Pockets Kelly*
8) Steve Garvey
9) Joe Adcock
10) Adrian Gonzalez
*You don’t know who this is. Honestly, neither did I. But I included him because A) he’s a Hall of Famer and B) HIS NAME IS “HIGH POCKETS”.
That’s one Hall of Famer (Kelly), one lock once he’s eligible (Bagwell), one who would be on numbers alone if not for the PED issue (Palmeiro), one of the legendarily feared sluggers of his time (Kluszewski), one of the biggest stars of today (Gonzalez), and two long-time stars (Adcock and Garvey).
That’s some impressive company. Yet that only takes into account what Loney has done up until this point in his career, in seasons some have found underwhelming. We’ve already seen signs that he might advance past that, especially since…
His pitch recognition is improving. As many have noted, Loney’s 2008 and 2009 stat lines are eerily similar – I mean, it’s one thing to put up 13 homers and 90 RBI two years in a row, but to get 651 plate appearances on the nose twice in a row? That’s just freaky. But what it does do is help us see exactly what changed in the same amount of appearances from the first year to the next. In 2008, Loney struck out 40 more times than he walked (85-45). Yet in 2009, that number changed by 42, to the point that he actually walked twice more than he K’s (68-70).
That’s a pretty stunning turnaround in the space of just one year, and it really shows a young player who’s gaining control of the strike zone – he swung at 4% fewer pitches outside the strike zone in 2009 than the year before. At his age, the turnaround in K/BB is a fantastic sign. While some might say, “well that’s great, but then why didn’t he hit with any more authority?”, the fact is that as the year went on…
He ended last year on a great hot streak. This may or may not, as I wrote in the Annual, have anything to do with bench coach Bob Schaefer telling him to lose his mouthguard. Yet from August 25th on, Loney crushed the ball, hitting .296/.382/.464 (.846 OPS) with 6 homers. In the playoffs, he was even better, putting up an .892 OPS with 2 more homers. Whether it was the mouthpiece, seeing better pitches because he was laying off the junk, just maturing the point where everything ”clicked”, or some combination of the three, Loney took off in late August and never stopped.
If 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 – and all signs point to 2010 being the Year of the Loney. You heard it here. (For the record, while I’m high on Loney, I feel the opposite about Martin. Therefore, expect Martin to be an All-Star while Loney is demoted by June.)