James and the Giant Streak


Not to totally shortchange Clayton Kershaw‘s fifth complete game of the season or Andre Ethier‘s 3-4 performance despite the whirlwind of controversy around him, but there’s no way either of those things interest me more than the fact that James Loney had two more extra base hits on Monday, including his ninth home run of the season. Over his last eight games, Loney has an absurd .541/1.000 OBP/SLG with four dingers and five doubles, and now that it seems this streak didn’t leave town with the Rockies, it’s time to take a look at what’s really going on here.

My first thought was that perhaps Loney had changed his mechanics, which is something we’ve heard endless times throughout the season from both Loney and Don Mattingly. I went through several of his games from his awful April and his amazing August, hoping to find some small change in his swing… and to be honest, I couldn’t, at least nothing worth pointing to and declaring that it was the cause of his recent success. Still, since I made several animated gifs, here’s two of them for you to look at and compare for yourselves.

This is Loney on April 8 in San Diego, where he went 0-5 with two strikeouts in one of his worst games of the season…


…and here he is crushing a homer off Colorado lefty Matt Reynolds last weekend against Colorado:

Other than the fact that he’s swinging at some bad balls from San Diego’s Cory Luebke and the Reynolds pitch is something of a meatball over the inner half of the plate, I don’t really see much there. He’s stepping in the bucket slightly in April, though he’s still doing that in August. That being said, I in no way consider myself a swing expert, so feel free to point out something I’m missing.

Still, even if it’s not mechanical, there’s clearly something going on, so what is it? Some suggest that the talk of his being non-tendered has somehow motivated him, but I have trouble buying into that, since there’s never been any negative whispers about Loney’s work ethic or personality and he’s been struggling for nearly two years now. There’s also the idea that replacing Jeff Pentland as hitting coach with Dave Hansen kick-started things; this is possible, though Hansen had been with the team all along and when people talk about how many more runs have scored since the move, they like to conveniently forget that Juan Rivera arrived at basically the same time. Maybe his struggles this year were so bad that opponents finally moved past the “but he’s a good RBI guy” myth and realized there was no reason to do anything but challenge him, allowing him fewer opportunities to chase bad balls and receive better pitches to hit. (The numbers don’t bare that out, though they’re for the full season; I don’t have any way of breaking them down within segments of a season.) All of these suggestions are possibilities, yet none stand out. (Edit: I also meant to mention, but forgot to do so, that his streak roughly corresponds with being moved up to the #2 spot in the lineup, which could also help him see better pitches in front of Kemp. Kudos to Wil in the comments for pointing it out. That said, it also has to be more than that, since he has batted sixth twice and fourth once in his streak.)

For the moment, I’m leaning towards our subconscious perception of Loney as being the main culprit. As hot as Loney as been lately – and make no mistake, he’s been excellent – it’s also been eight games and 35 at-bats. In his previous 37 at-bats, leading back to the beginning of the month, he’d hit .243/.341/.351 with two extra-base hits. In all of July, he hit .176/.225/.230 with four extra-base hits, all doubles. So as much as I’m enjoying the new and improved James Loney, this level of production is going to need to last for at least another week or two (if not the rest of the season) before I’m able to chalk it up to anything more than a very welcome hot streak.

That’s what brings me back to perception. Streaks happen in baseball. Anyone can have one, in either direction. Just as Loney is absolutely not as good as he’s been over the last week, he’s also not really as bad as he showed in April when we were all calling for his head. It won’t take too much more for this hot streak to basically counteract his frigid start; as Jon Weisman rightly mentioned at Dodger Thoughts, since Loney’s low point on April 24, he’s essentially been standard-issue Loney, with an OPS similar to his career marks.

The problem for Loney was the timing, since due to the daily nature of baseball, first impressions sometimes count for too much. Other than fewer RBI, in large part due to the low-OBP crew the Dodgers have assembled this year, Loney is probably going to end up with a season line very similar to what he’s put up in each of the last three seasons. Taken as a whole, whether he was cold in April and hot in August or vice-versa doesn’t really matter, since it all counts for the same over the course of a season. Yet since Loney got off to such a bad start, his batting average didn’t climb above .250 until the middle of June. That’s a whole lot of time for people to be looking at box scores and television graphics and seeing their first baseman hitting .190, .220, .240, etc. If he’d had the hot streak first, it might have taken him that long to get his average below .300, and you can bet that people would be thinking of him differently, even though overall his season might be completely identical.

We’ve seen this phenomenon happen before. Rod Barajas had essentially one good week in all of 2010, yet since it was in his first week as a Dodger, he didn’t receive a whole lot of criticism for the fact he did little in September – and it helped him get a hefty contract for 2011. In 2009, Orlando Hudson got off to a fantastic start, hitting .348/.429/.539 through the first 35 games of the season. Despite the fact that he played so poorly the rest of the year that he eventually lost his job to Ronnie Belliard in the playoffs, that first impression (and the fact his batting average looked pretty on the scoreboard every night), meant most Dodger fans remembered their first impression of Hudson as a second base superstar.

The point is, absent further information or the unlikely probability that Loney hits like this through the end of the season, he’s probably going to be the same James Loney that he’s always been. He’ll end up with 10-12 homers and a line somewhere in the neighborhood of .280/.335/.395, just like every year.  He was never as bad as we poked fun at him for being early in the season when he struggled to get the average above .200, nor is he as good as he’s seemed in the last week. He’s still going to be a likely non-tender following the season, simply because the Dodgers can’t afford to pay ~$6m to a non-star first baseman (though it’s possible they still attempt to bring him back after that for a lesser price.)

Streaks happen. Let’s enjoy this one.

******

Some minor pitching news: the Dodgers are about to need two additional starting pitchers. Nathan Eovaldi‘s start on Saturday will be his last one of the season, says Don Mattingly, but in addition he’s shuffled the rotation so that Chad Billingsley will start on Friday and a minor league callup will start the Thursday makeup game in Pittsburgh. Thursday is September 1, so there’s no roster implications there, but presumptive choice John Ely started for Albuquerque on Sunday and I doubt they’d throw him on short rest. Ken Gurnick suggests Dana Eveland or Allen Webster; Webster is infinitely more fun yet has also been hit hard in his last few games, so it’s almost certainly Eveland, with he and Ely probably each getting starts in September.

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