The New & Improved James Loney

On April 25 in Florida, James Loney went 1-4, with Jonathan Broxton blowing the lead in large part due to Jamey Carroll‘s ninth-inning fielding error. Loney’s line following the game fell to a putrid .170/.194/.213. While 24 games into the season may not seem like enough of a sample size to make judgements, Loney’s generally mediocre career and in particular his terrible 2010 second half helped to set off  a barrage of criticism, both in these pages and elsewhere. On April 20, I argued at Baseball Prospectus that he would need to move on from Los Angeles in order to revive his career. If he was going to hit .170 all season, the thinking went, the question of whether he’d be non-tendered after the season would become moot, because we’d be wondering if he’d get DFA’d first.  Though he’s remained the starting first baseman, as the season has progressed, he’s begun to lose playing time against lefties to Jerry Sands and Casey Blake.

The next day, Loney went 4-4 in a 4-2 loss to the Marlins. All of the hits were singles, of course – he hadn’t had an extra base hit in 20 days, and wouldn’t until a double in a 1-0 loss to Arizona on May 14 – but it was a start. Though by early May, I was pointing out that he was on pace to have a historically poor season for a first baseman, what we couldn’t have known at that point was that his turnaround had already begun.

Since that four-hit game on April 26, Loney has turned his season around, hitting  .331/.388/.432 in 188 plate appearances, good for an .820 OPS with a nice 14/16 K/BB ratio. That OPS still isn’t great – it’d put him at 13th among qualified 1B if he’d had it for the full season - but it’s immensely better than his “among the worst in history” start to the season.

His improvement over the course of the season is even more clear when you break it down by month:

Split G PA H 2B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
April/March 28 112 22 1 1 12 5 16 .210 .241 .248 .489 .233
May 28 100 27 5 2 6 7 5 .293 .350 .413 .763 .294
June 19 74 23 3 1 9 7 8 .348 .405 .439 .845 .379
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/23/2011.

As I mentioned yesterday, he’s now got more hits in June than he did in March & April, despite there still being more than a week left in the month. So what caused this turnaround? I wish I could say. Could it have been a recovery from the sore left knee which bothered him in the spring? Sure, I suppose, though that doesn’t explain his second-half slide from last year. What about mechanics? I’m hardly a swing expert, but I compared video from this week and earlier in the season and couldn’t identify a specific change. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a subtle difference - this Jim Peltz LA Times story from last week notes that Loney had decided to stop messing with his approach.

After acknowledging recently that he frequently tinkered with his swing in search of improvement, the left-handed hitter said he was “settling into an approach” at the plate “and just trusting it.”

“You’re going to make outs here and there but hopefully I’ll have some consistent swings,” he said.

That was welcome news to Manager Don Mattingly, who said Loney “promised me the other day he was not going to change” his swing again.

He also appears to have become more selective at the plate, a fact which is reflected in his great K/BB mark since his resurgence began. On May 11, Jeff Sullivan at SBNation took a look at which hitters had changed their approach most since last season, and at the time he noted that no one had changed more than Loney, who had been swinging at 9.1% more pitches than he had in 2010. Where is he at now? Just 4.7% ahead of last year’s pace, so he’s been selective enough since May 11 to slice that number in half. There’s a lot that goes into being a successful big league hitter, but not swinging at bad pitches is a pretty good start.

So where do we go from here? We can’t expect his monthly production to continue trending upward as it has been, otherwise he’ll have an OPS of about 1.300 in August, which isn’t going to happen. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of disagreement here, but I look at Loney’s turnaround less in the sense of how it helps the Dodgers win in 2011, and more in the sense that he might actually be viable trade bait for someone at the deadline. You can argue with that all you want, but in order to even be in the playoff hunt, the Dodgers will need to go something like 56-30 over the remaining 86 games, and that’s a winning percentage which no team in baseball is even close to. This team isn’t going to the playoffs, and Loney isn’t someone I want to invest a large arbitration award to for 2012 if we can avoid it.

To even be able to say that Loney has value with a straight face, after months of wondering when he’d be benched, is a testament to just how good he’s been lately. So where might be some viable destinations for him, particularly keeping in mind the well-known facts that he’s far more effective away from Dodger Stadium? It’d have to be a team that’s both in the hunt and has a need for a platoon first baseman with a good glove, since he can’t hit lefties. While he’s under contract for next year, we’ll assume that teams who are out of the hunt won’t want to invest the 2012 money for a player with such a questionable track record.

Let’s limit our search to teams who are at least within two games of .500, so in the American League that eliminates the Blue Jays, Orioles, Twins, Royals, and Athletics. (Too bad, too, since the Twins, Orioles, and A’s could all badly use upgrades at the position.) The Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, and White Sox have little need for him, and the Rangers have Mitch Moreland, a lefty who is outperforming Loney.

That leaves four teams, each with easy-to-spot hinderances in a trade:

Rays. Tampa Bay has given most of their playing time at first base to Casey Kotchman, of all people, who was basically left for dead and is now on his fourth team since leaving the Angels in a 2008 trade. Kotchman, believe it or not, has been very good – .337/.395/.455 – and while it’s anyone’s guess if that can keep up, Loney isn’t an obvious upgrade right now. They’re both lefties, so there’s no obvious platoon, either, and Tampa is unlikely to take on salary. However, there’s been talk of Loney being connected with Tampa for some time, and their DH spot hasn’t been so productive it couldn’t be upgraded upon. Unlikely, but possible.

Mariners. Like Tampa, they don’t have an obvious need at first, since switch-hitting Justin Smoak is having a breakout season, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they’ll be able to stick around in the division a month from now when the trade season really heats up. However, they’re absolutely desperate for offense, since Smoak is the only even league-average bat they have. Loney could theoretically slot in as a DH/part-time 1B, but how hilarious would it be to have him in one of the more severe pitcher’s parks in baseball?

Indians. Cleveland is surprisingly leading the AL Central, and doing so despite less-than-adequate production from Matt LaPorta at first. In his three seasons in Ohio, his OBP marks have been .308, .306, .309, without enough of the power that would make that acceptable. Like the Mariners, I’m not sure I see them sticking around long enough to need to buy.

Angels. Right off the bat, the interleague rivals rarely trade with each other, so keep that in mind. With Kendrys Morales down for the count, they’ve been using Mark Trumbo at first base. Trumbo has just a .305 OBP, but he’s also the only Angel with double-digit homers, and he also doesn’t have much of a platoon split. Probably not going to happen.

In the National League, the Marlins, Cubs, Astros, and Padres are too far out to think they’ll be buyers. The Pirates are at .500, but few expect them to be buyers either. The Brewers, Reds, Rockies, and Phillies don’t need to upgrade at first base. The Giants and Diamondbacks could look for help at the position, but a trade within the division is unlikely. That also leaves four clubs:

Nationals. The Nationals have somehow snuck their way into a .500 record, and while I doubt they’ll be buyers, they’ve been known to surprise – and they’ve been linked to Loney before. Ever since Adam LaRoche was lost for the season, they have been playing Mike Morse – you know, the guy I badly wanted the Dodgers to go after last winter - at first base, and he’s only been one of the best hitters in baseball for the last month. That may not seem like a situation which would scream for Loney, but Morse could also be pushed back into an outfield corner, where the Nats have recieved inconsistent production. I’ll consider them a dark horse.

Mets. On a purely baseball level, this could make sense, since Ike Davis‘ productive season was cut short in May by an ankle injury which he may not retun at all from this year. In the meantime, they’ve been trying to get by with Dan Murphy and Lucas Duda, so Loney could represent an upgrade. Of course, the Mets have an ownership situation which is in nearly as rough shape as the Dodgers do, and at 36-38 they’re just as likely to be sellers themselves and say goodbye to Carlos Beltran & Francisco Rodriguez.

Cardinals. Normally, the thought of St. Louis going after a first baseman would be blasphemy, but that was before Albert Pujols injured his wrist, knocking him out until August. Wrist injuries have been known to slow down even the best hitters after their return, and then who knows where he signs in the winter? Loney could be a solid backup plan for the Cards, just half a game out in the Central.

Braves. I’m compelled to include them here just because I haven’t explicitly counted them out yet, but, nah. Freddie Freeman hasn’t been great, but nor has he been so poor that he’s a must-replace, and this club has larger concerns in the outfield and at second base.

As you can see, there’s no obvious option that stands out, though that could certainly change between now and July 31 – if the Dodgers even decide to move him. Let’s hear it in the comments – if Loney can keep up his value, where do you see him going?

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