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Addressing the James Loney Situation

Posted By Eric Seidman On April 20, 2011 @ 9:00 am In Daily Graphings | 62 Comments

James Loney isn’t good enough to be a big-league starter.

In 486 plate appearances from 2006-07, Loney hit .321/.372/.543 and took the league by storm. At just 23 years of age, his future seemed bright. He boasted a sweet left-handed swing, smart baserunning ability, and smooth glovework.

He has since spent 1,951 plate appearances slashing .279/.341/.409 — a sub-replacement level line for the position — with an average UZR. He hasn’t shown any signs of improving or turning the corner. He slugged below .400 in each of the last two seasons. His ability to reach base has sputtered in spite of league average BABIP rates. His defense has been decent, but underwhelming, which has exacerbated the offensive woes.

Loney is now 27 years old and clearly lacks the requisite skills for a regular starting role.

From 2008-10, he tallied just 3.3 wins above replacement, which ranks second worst across all batters with at least 1,700 PAs in the span, better only than perennial punching bag Jeff Francoeur, who produced exactly 0.0 WAR.

Restrict the pool of players to regular first baseman in the same span and he has been the worst full-time starter at the position. Loney has the lowest slugging percentage and isolated power rates among the qualifying crop and registered four runs below average in the field. It’s incredibly rare for a player with as poor a resume to stick at such an offensively-minded position for three full seasons without giving any indication of improving. Aside from name recognition, what exactly has he offered that a minor league prospect couldn’t replicate? Ironically, the next closest player on the trailerboard is Lyle Overbay, who I have always felt personified the replacement level for the position.

To gain an historical perspective on his relative ineptitude I queried our database for all three-year spans in which a batter stepped to the plate at least 1,700 times, and sorted by the WAR total. The output included 5,613 three-year spans. Loney’s 2008-10 span ranks as the 224th worst, in a virtual dead heat with Yuniesky Betancourt’s 2006-08 numbers.

Mix these ingredients together and one has to wonder: why exactly does he play on a regular basis? Aside from a small sample of approximately 500 plate appearances from five seasons ago, the results of which have been wiped away over the past three years, I suppose the answer is that he is still young at 27 years old, and he looks good in spite of the results.

His swing looks nice even if it lacks pop. He is agile and smooth in the field even if the numbers belie a mediocre fielder. The results are lacking, but he does enough to convince scouts that improvement is inevitable.

Loney makes $4.875 million this season as an ARB-2 player. He will make even more next year if the Dodgers decide to tender him a contract. While a WAR-to-dollars computation would suggest that being slightly more than a win over replacement would justify his current salary, would you want to pay that much for literally one win?

In all likelihood, a full season of the recently recalled Jerry Sands could match that total while costing one-tenth of the salary. A platoon of Marcus Thames and Jay Gibbons could probably do the trick as well. A team serious about contending simply should not be paying a one-win player almost $5 million, especially when the last three years portend a low ceiling.

Even more interesting is that Loney doesn’t profile well as a platoon player.

vs. LHP: .316 OBP, .374 SLG, .305 wOBA
vs. RHP: .354 OBP, .451 SLG, .346 wOBA

The numbers obviously improve against opposite-handed pitchers, but a .346 wOBA is not that impressive in a favorable platoon environment, especially considering he would receive the bulk of the PAs as a lefty. He is a bench or part-time player masquerading as an everyday starter, and the Dodgers need to reach this epiphany.

The team has a decent lineup built around Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, and an underrated pitching staff featuring Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ted Lilly. They can legitimately contend for the NL West crown which is why this situation needs addressing. 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.


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