James Loney’s Problems at the Plate

James Loney is having a horrible start to the 2011 season. His wRC+ of 58 is by far the lowest of his career and is the seventh worst in the league. That kind of performance from first basemen is unacceptable. But the Los Angeles Dodgers have started him in every one of their 51 games this year (@truebluela notes that Loney has started in the past 120 Dodgers games). With Loney at first for the foreseeable future it is important to see what are the causes of his problems.

So far this year he is doing nothing right at the plate, as his BB%, ISO, and BABIP have all tanked. His BIS plate-discipline numbers show the reason for the drop in BB%; he is swinging at many more pitches overall, and particularly pitches outside of the zone. To see where these extra swings are coming I plotted swing contours for Loney, breaking them up by 2011 compared to perviously. Pitches inside the 60% contour Loney swung at over 60% of the time, while those outside the 60% contour he swung at less than 60% of the time. Similarly for the 55% contour.

First off you can see how much more Loney is swinging by the growth in size of his swing contours. In fact, his 2011 60% swing contour is larger than his pervious 55% swing contour. This plays a big role in his lower walk rate, as he is swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone. But even within the zone he is swinging at more pitches down-and-away then he has perviously and I think that plays a role in his lower ISO and BABIP.

Here is a graph of his bases per swing by location for his all the years covered by the Pitch F/x data. Bases per swing isn’t the best metric (it treats a swing and miss the same as a out), but gives some idea of how well he does on a pitch if he swings at it.

Not surprisingly Loney, a left-handed batter, does best on middle-in pitches. This region lines up very well with where he perviously swung at the highest rate. He did a good job of swinging at the pitches he did the best with. But this year he is increasingly swinging at pitches outside of his sweet spot. I think these out-of-zone and down-and-away pitches that he makes contact with are partially responsible for his lower ISO and BABIP.

Early in the season Eric noted that Loney has had below-average numbers every year since 2007, and probably would be best off as a platoon player. Since then he has been even worse — playing below replacement so far this year. If he is going to regain what value he had he needs to stop swinging so much and regain his selectivity.

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Dave Allen's other baseball work can be found at Baseball Analysts.

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