After a rough start to the season, the Rays have clawed their way back over .500 via a five-game winning streak with a series win over the disappointing (to put it mildly) Blue Jays and a three-game sweep of the Padres this weekend. Tampa Bay is still in fourth place in the American League East, four-and-a-half games back of the division-leading Yankees, but this early in the season, they are still in it. The East looks like it is going to be entertaining all season.
The Rays, like pretty much every team at this point in the season, has had their share of surprises and disappointments. Evan Longoria is back to being awesome, if he ever really stopped. David Price has had his frustrations. On Friday, Alex Cobb had one of the most incredible sub-five inning starts ever. Among the hitters, though, easily the most effective Rays hitter this season has been off-season stopgap acquisition James Loney, who is currently hitting .376/.429/.560 (176 wRC+), including homers in each of the last two games. This early in the season, is there any indication that Loney has made some changes that would mark improvement after five disappointing seasons (mostly with the Dodgers), or is just another instance of the Rays catching a Case of the Kotchmans?
Although the Rays, at first glance, have not done a wonderful job filling the shoes left open after Carlos Pena‘s initial run with the team, it has not been a total disaster. Sure, Pena’s return trip in 2012 was terrible. On the other hand, in 2011 the Rays signed perienally-disappointment Casey Kotchman, coming off a miserable 2010 season for Seattle even by his standards. Kotchman responded by having a nice season for Tampa Bay, mostly because his always-good contact skills were finally accompanied by a decent BABIP. Kotchman then signed with Cleveland for 2012 and promptly turned back into a pumpkin.
Loney’s early-season run of success with the Rays so far has garnered obvious comparisons: both were formerly good first base prospects who became a disappointments. The Rays picked each up off of the scrap heap for chump change (relatively speaking) and each then went on a hot streak. The similarities ran a bit more deeply, though. Both were in their late 20s (Kotchman 28, Loney will soon be 29) when signed by the Rays — not young, but still in what are typically prime seasons (again, relatively speaking) for most hitters. Both were (and continue to be) left-handed hitters. Both had very low strikeout rates. And both had mostly struggled at the plate, primarily due to a lack of power.
As for Loney in particular, it is not as if he has been completely terrible from the start. He has never lived up to the promise of his 2006 and 2007 partial-season performances, but from 2008 to 2011, his numbers show him to be about an average hitter. The problem is that he is a first baseman, and an average- (or slightly above-average) hitting first baseman just is not all that valuable. In 2012 things got particularly ugly. It was not simply the bottom dropping out of his BABIP (down to .269) — Loney’s power went, too (.088 ISO).
The obvious and easy answer to what is going on with Loney this year is simply the early-season classic: random variation over a small sample size (120 plate appearances). On one level, that might just be good enough.After all, the biggest difference for Loney so far this season is his .404 BABIP, and BABIP is quite subject to random fluctuations. Loney is probably also benefiting from being platooned, as would almost anyone.
While sample size/luck issues cannot be cast aside, it is also worth looking more closely to see if anything has changed. A couple of weeks ago at The Process Report, Tommy Rancel looked at Loney’s leg kick and suggested that changes he has made (or reversion to an earlier form) might be enabling him to drive the ball better. The piece is definitely worth checking out; Rancel does not make exaggerated claims, he simply points something out worth further examination.
Is Loney driving the ball better in a way that might last? The batted ball data suggests that it might be the case, recording 34 percent of Loney’s batted balls in 2013 as line drives. This should be taken with multiple grains of salt, however. First of all, even the most ardent defenders of batted ball data acknowledge that three big boxes (grounders, liners, and fly balls) are going to have trouble capturing the subtle differences in types between not just individual batted balls but between individual hitters. Moreover, line drive percentage itself appears to be the most subject to random variation out of all the metrics examined here. Finally, and on a related point, since batted ball data was been recorded starting in 2002, no qualified hitter over a full season has ever had a line drive rate as high as Loney’s current rate, and only two have ever been as high as 30 percent.
Loney’s improved production has not been completely based on average on balls in play. He is also hitting for more power, and that may be due to the return of his leg kick. Looking at his rates for extra-base hits, he is hitting both home runs on contacted balls at his highest rate since 2007, and doubles and triples at his highest rate ever except for 2010. Here again, though, qualifations must be made. While home run rates stabilize quickly, at least relative to other metrics, Loney still just has three on the season. According to ESPN Hit Tracker, their speed off of the bat is not any higher than in past years. Most of Loney’s increase in isolated power this year has come from his 11 doubles, but again, doubles on balls in play is one of metrics most subject to random variation.
All of this may simply sound like just another “yes, but sample size” sort of analysis, and I suppose that it is. However, I think one can pull more out of it than just that tired, if important, point. Rancel has found something concrete that, while not definitive, does provide an explanation for why Loney might be better, and this cannot simply be ignored. Maybe it will turn out not to make a difference, but if Loney continues to drive the ball effectively (even if not as effectively as his current ridiculous rate), then we might look back and see this as an important discovery. Moreover, remember one significant parallel between Loney and Kotchman — their ability to make contact. While strikeouts are not that different compared to other outs, the ability to make contact itself is something of a key to offense, and high-power, high-walks players who can overcome their strikeouts are not as easy to find or cheap to sign as they were 10 years ago.
Kotchman turned out to be a pumpkin, and Loney may, too. I seriously doubt the Rays were expecting anything like this from Loney when they signed him for $2 million to be a platoon first baseman. But if they could not afford a power guy, finding a player like Loney who can make contact and might be able to re-gain his ability to drive the ball is not a bad alternative strategy at all for a team without better options. Hey, it once worked with Casey Kotchman.
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