James Loney Can't Hit For Power

James Loney, last 7 days: 5 HR, .480 BA, .480 OBP, 1.180 SLG, 1.660 OPS (!). Just sayin’.

Not to mention, as I write this, he doubles in the first run of tonight’s game off Greg Maddux. Update: and as I’m just about finished with this, he singles in 2 more! He’s got all 3 RBI so far. Update 2: and as I’m looking for a good picture, he gets another RBI hit! 4 RBI! It’s like he knows.

Small sample size? Sure! But while I still don’t expect that he’ll be a 40 homer guy, can we put to rest the “he won’t hit for enough power to be an elite first baloneydinger.jpgseman” fallacy? First of all, even if that were true, I don’t think it would matter – I’ll take a .320-hitting doubles machine with a golden glove any day.

But I think it’s pretty clear the power is going to come. He’s hit in the bigs since the day he arrived – in 378 career at-bats (a little more than half a season worth) he’s putting up a .312 average, and a .532 slugging pct. If that’s what we could expect from him every year? Great! But let’s not forget.. the kid won’t even turn 24 until next May, and he’s already got a career .896 OPS. Is it unreasonable to think that he’s only going to get better as he matures? Not at all.

Let’s look at some real stats. This is, officially, Loney’s “rookie year”, since he only got 102 at-bats last year, short of the 150 required to lose your rookie status. (Ryan Braun’s all but got the Rookie of the Year award sewn up, so I won’t even bother advocating that.) Amongst all MLB first basemen, he’s ranked 17th in VORP. Not that impressive, you say? Well, don’t forget – VORP is not a percentage stat – it’s a counting stat. That means that most of these other guys were accumulating VORPs (VORPage? VORP units? How are we using the plural of this?) while Loney was traipsing aorund the PCL on buses. So let’s try something more useful, and since I’m using a Baseball Prospectus stat, I might as well use their definition as well:

VORPr: VORP rate. Runs/game contributed beyond what a replacement level player would produce.

Basically, it eliminates the fact that Loney hasn’t had as much time to pile up VORPsticles over the season by seeing how much he’s got per game.

2007 MLB 1B by VORPr, min. 50 PA:

1. Mark Teixeira .501
2. Carlos Pena .447
3. Albert Pujols .419
4. Prince Fielder .416
5. Dmitri Young .335
6. Todd Helton .324
7. James Loney .312

There’s some names you might recognize on that list, including surefire Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, surefire Hall of Famer Todd Helton, damned good chance at being a Hall of Famer Mark Teixeira, possible NL MVP Prince Fielder.. and the completely inexplicable Carlos Pena and Dmitri Young.

So despite being only 23 and obviously still adjusting to life in the bigs, James Loney is, by this measure, the 7th best first baseman in baseball. This does not take into account defense, which is also a huge strength of his.

Oh, and the names just after his on that list? You may have heard of these guys, too:

8. Ryan Howard .310
9. Derrek Lee .291
11. Lance Berkman .251
13. Justin Morneau .233 

There’s no more “when Loney is ready”. Loney’s ready NOW. He’s already one of the most valuable players at his position in baseball¬†- and that’s not even considering his age, defense, and low salary.

(By the way, Nomar on that list? 42nd. He loses -0.023 VORP molecules each time he hits. Can you imagine where we’d be if Loney was playing from Day 1? Excuse me while I jam my thumbs into my own eyes.)

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg

I, For One, Support Our New Young Pitching Overlords

In case you missed it on Monday night in Houston, Chad Billingsley was – to put it quite simply – the balls. The numbers speak for themselves; in his first career complete game, he gave up only 5 hits and 2 runs, while striking out 6. He had a shutout going until 2 outs in the 9th, when he gave up a meaningless home run. Perhaps even more impressive was his timing – the Dodger bullpen has been wildly overworked lately, so for Billingsley to give them an entire night off was huge.

But this is about more than one night in July. The question that stands before us is, just how good can this kid be? His 23rd birthday isn’t even until next week, and he’s already shown us some huge flashes of his talent.

Actually, let’s not gloss over this point. He’s 23 next week and he’s already having success at the major league level. Is there a commodity in baseball more valuable than quality, cheap young pitching right now? It’s like realizing you have an oil well about to burst in your backyard, and you drill it only to find that it’s coated in diamonds and hookers.

*Bzzzt*

We now take you live to San Francisco for live coverage of Barry Bonds’ pursuit of the home run record! Barry grounds weakly to second, but we’ll be back with 24/7 coverage of every meaningless move he makes!

Ugh, sorry about that. Here on the East Coast, that’s what I’ve been getting every time I sit down to watch a game. Why don’t they ever cover his puppy-eating and satanic rituals?

Meanwhile, back to Billingsley. LA’s first round pick in 2003 who made his debut at age 19 in rookie league that year, he dominated all throughout the minors. In 78 games, he had an ERA of 3.18, with an excellent 10.22 K’s per nine innings. In 2006, he started out in AAA Las Vegas (in the notoriously hitter-friendly PCL), and at the ripe old age of 21, did pretty well for himself: 6-3, 3.95 ERA, more than a K per inning. Called up to the Dodgers, he again impressed: a 7-4 record in 16 starts, with a 3.80 ERA and a 121 ERA+. That’s not to say he didn’t have his struggles; in 90.0 IP, he K’d only 59 while walking 58. Clearly, pitch counts were his mortal enemy, but for a 21 year old rookie, his debut was definitely a success. He even chipped in with 2 scoreless relief innings (1 hit, 3 K’s) against the Mets in the NLDS.

Despite that, he started 2007 in the pen for the big club, ostensibly to learn to focus and keep his pitch counts down, though more likely in order to say to Brett Tomko that they at least gave him a chance to start before he imploded. Billingsley quickly became a valuable part of a dominating pen, teaming with Joe Beimel to own the 6th and 7th leading into Broxton/Saito to finish it all out.

By June, he was moved into the rotation, and though he’s occasionally still had pitch-count issues (113 pitches in 5 innings vs. the Phillies say, “what’s up?”) he’s improved in nearly every area from 2006. ERA down from 3.80 to 3.38. A nearly 1-1 K/BB ratio to better than 2/1. WHIP down from 1.67 to 1.23. So, uh, yeah – I’d say he’s looking every bit the real deal.

How valuable has he been to the Dodgers? Well, put it this way. After not even making the rotation initially, for a few frightening hours last night (when Penny was doubled over in pain and Lowe’s MRI results weren’t back yet), Billingsley was the ace of this team. And hey – if he can gain some consistency and perform anything like he did on Monday night in Houston? He will be the ace of this team, and soon. Because in case I didn’t mention it, he’s a talented young pitcher not even 23 yet.