I realize that the topic du jour around Dodgertown today is going to be the continued failure of the back end of the bullpen (and imagine my surprise when I checked the final score this morning after falling asleep last night in the 8th inning, down 2-1), but there will be plenty of time another day to look at what appears to be an ongoing problem. (Feel free to discuss it in the comments though.)
Today, however, the spotlight falls upon James Loney, who now has the second-lowest OPS+ of any big leaguer who has at least 65 plate appearances in 2011. If I’d bumped the floor up to 70, Carl Crawford would no longer qualify and Loney would stand by himself at the top. Or bottom. Whichever.
Anyway, today is Loney day in no small part because running today at Baseball Prospectus is my first feature article outside the usual weekly fantasy look at relievers. I won’t repost the entire thing here; the introduction focuses on how the failures of Loney, Juan Uribe, Rod Barajas, and Aaron Miles are dragging down the great work of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and the starting rotation, which is nothing new to most of you, and then mentions how the promotion of Jerry Sands and progress of Trayvon Robinson makes it almost certain that Loney is not long for Los Angeles.
Here’s the money shot, however:
Now, it does seem clear that Loney’s tenure with the Dodgers is drawing to an end one way or another. But what is less clear to me is that he has no future, despite his recent past. That is because he has one massive home/road split, largely unseen aside from players who call Colorado, Texas, or San Diego home.
Road OPS improvement
In a nearly identical amount of plate appearances over six seasons, Loney has proven to be two completely different players based on whether he is wearing the home whites or the road grays. It’s not the result of one big year either, because we’ve seen this kind of split in every year of his career, to varying degrees. In Dodger Stadium, Loney is essentially David Eckstein or Brendan Harris, players with career 701 OPS marks that mirror Loney’s home performance—that kind of offense is barely acceptable from a middle infielder, and even less so from a first baseman.
Yet, on the road, Loney’s 845 mark puts him in far better company, including Brian McCann, Luis Gonzalez, Jayson Werth, and Hideki Matsui. The use of raw OPS data is imperfect, I will admit, but the point remains: James Loney will not be successful as long as he his forced to play half of his games at Dodger Stadium.
That means the opportunity is there for an enterprising team to buy low (extremely low) on Loney in the hopes that rescuing him from Los Angeles would help bring out the “good” Loney more often. They would do well to keep him away from lefty pitching as well, where he has another large platoon split of 105 points of OPS. This combination makes letting him hit in Dodger Stadium against a southpaw seem like basically a no-win proposition, and indeed he is hitting just .208/.274/.284 lifetime in such situations–a far cry from his “road against righties” mark of .302/.357/.496.
All of this suggests that there may yet be a useful player in there, if he were to land in the right situation and be used carefully. Which teams, then, might be in the market for such a player, either through trade this year or in the offseason assuming the Dodgers let him walk? There are a few places which stand out, starting in the American League with Baltimore, which has an old and aching Derrek Lee on a one-year deal with no obvious replacement (unless you’re still on board the Brandon Snyder train). The argument could also be made for Cleveland, with Matt LaPorta not yet proven and still able to switch to left field if needed, and Tampa, where the umpteenth Dan Johnson experiment has not started well.
In the National League, Adam LaRoche is signed through 2012 in Washington, but never seems to stay anywhere longer than a year at a time and should never be seen as a roadblock for anyone–the same could be said for Lyle Overbay in Pittsburgh. Staying in the Central, Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee could all see their incumbent first basemen move on after the season, and there’s the less-likely but non-zero possibility that Houston could sour on Brett Wallace and choose to bring Loney back to his hometown.
Regardless of where he may land, Loney is an interesting case study simply because no one seems to get his value correctly. The “traditional” community, taken in by a sweet swing and solid RBI totals, continues to overvalue him and considers him to be a vital part of the young Dodger core, along with Kemp, Ethier, Chad Billingsley, and Clayton Kershaw. Conversely, the advanced stats community tends to despise him, generally considering that his lack of production from a power position and defensive metrics that don’t quite match his reputation to equal a very subpar package. (If only to illustrate that last point, I took part in an NL-only draft with several members of this site and other well-known sites just before the season; Loney lasted until the 344th pick. At any given time, there are only 400 players on the sixteen twenty-five man rosters in the league.)
The truth is likely somewhere in between, and though I will shed no tears as a Dodger fan when he finally leaves, let’s not be surprised at all if he immediately turns it around in a new home next year.
That’s right; after all the moaning I’ve done about Loney, particularly on Twitter during games, I still see hope for him – just not as a Dodger. I can just imagine what’ll happen if and when he goes to another team and does well; the shitstorm among Dodger fans will be immense, despite 98% of them having no clue about his home/road splits. (For the record, I’ve been talking about Loney’s home/road split issues for a while; I believe I mentioned them back in late 2009 for the 2010 Maple Street Press Dodger Annual.)
But I’m not the only one talking about Loney today, because Eric Seidman of Brotherly Glove has taken the topic on at Fangraphs as well. Though we agree that Loney isn’t helping the Dodgers at all, his outlook is a bit more dour than mine:
I’m not advocating an outright release of Loney, but the Dodgers should make a serious push to trade him.
If it took them three years to realize he isn’t the player they saw in 2006-07, it stands to reason that a few other teams might be equally slow in coming to this realization.
If nobody bites, they should look to split playing time between several players to extract the most value out of the position, instead of slavishly sticking to a below average player. If they fail to trade him then the team should certainly non-tender him after the season. Either way, this should be Loney’s final season on the Dodgers, and a big key to their potential playoff contention will involve drastically reducing his playing time.
Loney has perked up a bit with three hits in his last two games, though one was merely a well-placed grounder to the vacated shortstop hole on a hit-and-run. Either way, I tend to think it’s too little, too late. But the point about value stands – plenty of people, and presumably a few teams, greatly overvalue Loney because of his former top prospect status and pretty RBI totals. If the Dodgers can take advantage of that to move him for just about anything useful, I think they need to do it. And if that means Loney goes elsewhere, succeeds, and makes the Dodgers look foolish to some, then all the better for him – because it’s just not working out here.