James Loney & The Bucs: Sometimes Average Is An Upgrade

The rumor mill was pretty sure the Pittsburgh Pirates would sign James Loney this week. This year’s version of Tampa’s continual reclamation project at first base has a longer history of above-replacement production than Casey Kotchman and Dan Johnson ever did. There does seem to be some buy-high risk, though. Maybe it’s not sexy to sign a guy that has the upside to be league average, but this Pirates team hasn’t seen an average first baseman since 2009’s version of Garrett Jones left the building, and he was the only once since 2001 to achieve that feat.

Coming off of a career-best season that also featured his full-season career-best batting average on balls in play, it’s tempting to say that James Loney is only average when luck fuels him. He’s not without his warts, that’s true. But when you add up the strengths and weaknesses, another average year is absolutely attainable for Loney. Especially in Pittsburgh.

First, the facets in which Loney actually is average. He’s considered a good defender, but over all 8000+ innings of his career, he’s shown a 1.3 UZR/150 at first base, which is only marginally better than average. Defensive Runs Saved has liked him a bit better than that, so it might be fair to give him a larger number in that category in 2014. Given the positional value of a first baseman, though, even that larger number would have him neither hurting nor helping with the glove over an average player on the field.

Loney’s career walk rate is 7.8%, the league average last year was 7.9%. He’s reached on 29% of swings outside the zone for his career, the league average over the last four years has ranged from 29 to 31%. He swings 45% of the time overall, league average is 45% or so. So far so average.

It’s what happens once he swings that isn’t so average. In fact, it’s in those moments that he shows both his flaws and strengths. That’s not to say there aren’t aspects of his balls in play that aren’t average. For a guy that’s touted for his ability to go to all fields, his pull/center/opposite percentages — 37%/37%/25% — are a near-exact match for the league averages in those categories (39%/36%/25%).

But when it comes to the vertical angle of the ball off his bat, he distinguishes himself. His 24.2% line drive rate since 2008 is third in the game (minimum 2500 plate appearances). And yet his batting average on balls in play — in large part dependent on line drives — is only 78th in the league over the same time frame. And that’s probably because he isn’t putting much oomph behind his hits. His isolated slugging percentage since he became a regular (.124) is 120th out of 141.

By putting the ball in play at an elite level (21st out of those 141), putting on the ground more often than not, and focusing on line drives, James Loney provides value with his bat. By not producing much power with those balls in play, he steals some of that value away.

Add it all together — the great contact skills and the power of a middle infielder, along with a good glove at a position where the glove doesn’t matter as much — and he’s been less than league average. He has a 105 wRC+ for his career and steamer projects him to be exactly league average next year, but because of his position, he’s only averaged 1.4 WAR per 600 plate appearances for his career.

What would make him work like a league-average first baseman in Pittsburgh is his platoon partner in Gaby Sanchez. Loney against righties has more power (.146 career ISO), makes more contact (11% strikeout rate), and gets on base more (.351 career OBP). Putting his 114 career wRC+ against righties in tandem with Sanchez’ career 145 wRC+ against lefties would make for a tidy arrangement. Loney wasn’t really platooned last year — he faced lefties in 27.8% of his plate appearances, and the league average over the last two years was 29%. According to Chad Young, 47 players were under 20% last year, and Loney was at 21.1% himself in 2012. If you assume that 80% of his plate appearances — or more — will be against righties, you can take the over on his projections. Then add in Gaby Sanchez against lefties for a projected $2.3 million, and you’ll get close to the two wins that make for an average first baseman.

Which is good, because Pittsburgh has only gotten 7.2 wins from their all of their first basemen combined since 2008. They could use an average first baseman, even if it takes two players to get there.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.