I’ve been writing about the Dodgers on a daily basis for nearly six full years now, and so you can probably imagine that one of the most exciting deals in that span was the massive trade with Boston last August. Oh sure, Los Angeles picked up Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, & Nick Punto, and that was nice enough — but nearly lost in that was the fact that after year upon frustrating year, James Loney was gone. Finally! My long personal nightmare would be over.
Here we are less than a year later, and now Loney’s hitting .375/.430/.528 for the Rays. It’s a line that demands examination. I’ll never escape him.
Clearly, fantasy players aren’t buying into this quite yet, with ownership levels below 8% in both ESPN & Yahoo leagues. Yet it’s difficult to look at this…
…and not wonder what’s going on here.
So let’s look at the good. Though sample sizes remain small, Loney has become more selective at the plate, swinging at fewer of the bad pitches that ended up being weak groundouts late in his Dodger tenure. His O-Swing % — that’s percentage of balls swung at outside the zone — is down to 23.7% from 30.5% (2011) and 34.0% (2012).
Unsurprisingly, swinging at fewer awful pitches helps you out pretty much everywhere. Loney’s contact rate is up to a career-high 91.5%, while his swinging strike rate has dipped to a career-low 4.1%. I could simply tell you that his grounders have dropped while his line drive rate has increased, but let’s look at this chart instead:
That’s partially thanks to Joe Maddon, who has done what Joe Torre and Don Mattingly never quite could: keep Loney away from lefty pitching, against whom he’s managed a poor .295 wOBA in his career. Through Wednesday, 69 of Loney’s 79 plate appearances have come against righties, and while it’s worth pointing out that he actually does have 6 hits in those 10 tries against lefties, that’s not nearly enough to overcome years of ineptitude.
So that’s the good — Loney has been put in a position by his manager to succeed, and he’s stopped helping pitchers get him out by swinging at bad pitches.
What’s the bad? Well, a plus defensive first baseman who can handle righty pitching has value in the real world, especially on a team with a roster as flexible as Tampa’s. Unfortunately, his fantasy value remains limited, because he’s a first base-only player who simply doesn’t provide power. Loney has only one homer on the season; believe it or not, he hasn’t gone deep in his home park since 2011. He’s also a slow runner who adds little in stolen bases or runs.
So what you have here is a hitter with an admittedly gaudy line, and that’s eye-catching when you’re scrolling through the waiver list. Yet at an offense-first position, Loney doesn’t offer much of anything to back it up. He’s a one-category player, and one who doesn’t even play every day at that.
In AL-only leagues with a daily roster requirement, that’s probably worth your time. In shallower mixed leagues or weekly circuits, don’t let the nice slash line fool you.
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