When the Rays signed James Loney during the earliest parts of the offseason to a one year, $2M deal it was hard to find a lot to dislike. Sure, you’d like to have seen a track record of more power at a position known for slugging meatheads, but Loney has shown a very good glove and ability to make contact at a high rate throughout his career. Coming off his most disappointing season to date and it was pretty easy to see that The Lion was going to be an ideal target for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, expected him to get off to the start that he has. It wasn’t a stretch to expect a slight uptick on his overall basically league average bat due to the Rays platoon knowhow. Loney has hit righties pretty well throughout his career with an accumulated 113 wRC+ while being abysmal against lefties (81 wRC+). Still, this is a team that has given Matt Joyce regular playing time despite having some of the widest splits in the league. If you expected Loney to put up a .320 wOBA overall then you’d expect him to have a wOBA of .329 against righties and .292 against lefties using the platoon split regressor. That’s a bat that plays well enough two-thirds of the time especially with his glove.
Well if you have a pulse you know that Loney is rocking right now putting up a .428 wOBA and helping the team win with great at bats and tons of solid contact leading to hard liners. He shouldn’t be expected to hit this well all year, but let’s dig into the Pitch F/x data (courtesy of Brooks Baseball) to get an understanding of how he’s been able to do all of this so far. Let’s start with his total accrued Run Value by handedness and pitch type:
Despite having the career of a man that despises same-handers he has actually put up above average run values for all pitch types. He has particularly fared well on breaking balls, but overall has added around 2.8 runs to the offense against lefties. Against righties he has feasted on the fastball, while being slightly above average against the change and just a tick under average against the breaking ball. Take all of this together and he has been worth nearly 10 runs (or basically a win) more than the average batter against all pitchers. So how has the opposition pitched to him:
Starting on the right we see that lefties have been pretty fastball heavy (65%) while leaning heavily on the breaking ball (28%) when it comes to secondary stuff. Pitchers haven’t completely eschewed the change up, but as expected, they’re not throwing it a whole heck of a lot either. The top of the chart shows the total number of pitches for each count (at the bottom) to give you an idea of the (few) number of pitches he’s seen from lefties. Note that 20% of all the pitches he’s seen have come from a left-hander which shows that Joe Maddon hasn’t gone out of his way to completely hide Loney’s biggest weakness, though he’s smart to be sitting him against the guys with wider splits. Due to the incredibly small samples it doesn’t do much good to dig into these numbers as if they have a ton of meaning, but it gives a good idea of how fastball-heavy the opposition has been.
We start to see some non-useless samples when we focus on how righties have pitched to The Lion. Starting again with the total we see that he’s not getting an overwhelming number of change ups and he’s only seeing the breaking ball around a quarter of the time. He’s seeing a higher rate of change up in what should be considered pitcher’s counts (0-2, 1-2), though pitchers have leaned on the pitch earlier in the count as well. The breaking ball rates are pretty consistent across all counts and fastball usage varied a bit dependent on the count. Now that we’ve seen the number of pitches for each type we can adjust our Total Run Value Chart:
We can really see how well he has handled the few number of secondary pitches he’s seen so far and it really shows how well he has handled his biggest weakness thus far. I’m impressed with how he has handled the off-speed and breaking stuff from both types of pitcher and he has really been able to turn around the fastball, especially from righties. This is what a guy with few holes looks like, though the right-handed breaking ball does look like a slight flaw at this point. Let’s drill down a bit further and look at the total Run Values by count:
Previously posted sample sizes for each count still apply and you can multiply the total number of pitches by the percent used to get the raw number of each type of pitch in each count. He has done a good job of taking for a ball or hitting first-pitch fastballs, though breaking balls have had some success against him. No surprise that 0-2 has been his worst pitch though 1-1 and 1-0 aren’t far behind. With two strikes and at least one ball he has been better than average across the board showing a solid two-strike approach and he’s showed solid results when the count is in his favor on 3-1. Let’s switch over to the bigger samples when facing righties:
Loney’s only negative result comes on the 1-2 count where he has struggled quite a bit with the fastball. When the pitcher is ahead that much it’s natural to expect a put away breaking ball or change up so I don’t think we should beat him up for struggling in one of the more difficult counts. On 3-0 he’s almost always going to be taking so don’t sweat that. Everything else shows positive results. I love what he’s doing on first-pitch as he appears to be key-holing fastballs and he’s having good at bats in other pitchers counts like 0-2 and the more neutral 2-2. The takeaway here is that The Lion is giving solid at bats and appears able to change his approach to suit the count. One thing before moving on to my favorite couple of charts is a look at his swing% by count versus lefties and righties:
First-pitch against righties we can really see how he’s not going to swing unless it’s the pitch he’s sitting on. This is a great approach and something I think Ben Zobrist also does really well. I think this does a good job of showing a batter that walks the line between passivity and patience. He’s not really predictable after first pitch which means a pitcher has to bring his A-game every single time. With two-strikes it looks like he is swinging marginally more which should indicate a guy that’s willing to expand his zone. I’d rather see a guy shorten up his swing with two-strikes to foul off good pitches and hit bad ones, than have the mindset that he’s going to take anything borderline and hope for the best. Overall, we see that he’s swinging less than half the time, though slightly more against left-handed offerings. This would seem to confirm the idea that he’s acting appropriately based on a solid approach.
(From the Catcher’s Perspective)
Here’s the meat and potatoes of this post. Inset in the top left corner is Loney’s Run Value heatmap courtesy of Jeff Zimmerman’s incredible Baseball Heatmaps. I wanted to include this to give an overall feel for what’s going on and then you can look in the zone to identify pitch types and results.
Legend: Square = Breaking Ball, Triangle = Change Up, Circle = Fastball
Green = Ball
Brown = Called Strike
Orange = Foul
Blue = Hit
Black = In play, out(s)
Red = Swinging Strike
Out of the 85 pitches he has seen from lefties he has whiffed on four. FOUR! That works out to a 4.7% swing strike rate on all pitches thrown from same-handers. Just incredible. As with all of these things it’s nice to look at where he’s being pitched, but also where he’s not being pitched. You can see zero pitches down and in. This is an area I would think Loney would have trouble having success. His flat swing means he’s likely to top the ball leading to ground balls and jam shots. As for where he is being pitched there’s a lot to like.
He’s taking a lot of pitches on the extreme outer portion of the zone, but he’s also turned a couple of breaking balls into base hits and has been able to foul off a few more breaking balls and heaters in that outer third. The inner third has seen a few examples of each result, but for a guy that seems to like the ball out over the plate and away he has been able to garner a few base hits on pitches in that weren’t in enough. Let’s move on to the righties:
The inset is in the top-right corner this time, though the legend stays exactly the same. The heat map shows what we’ve all seen that he’s having incredible success on pitches away in the middle third, but struggling a bit on the pitch up and in and down and most of the stuff on the outer third. Just left of center is a veritable panoply of base knocks. That area is what the cool kids refer to as “tight butthole” and he’s putting good wood on virtually everything there. What he isn’t hitting he’s fouling off and keeping the count alive, though you can see the further away we get from the tight butthole zone the weaker contact he is making leading to balls in play being outs rather than ropes. He also has a penchant to take some of the more extreme pitches away as called strikes though that shouldn’t be a total shocker as most of those pitches are outside of the rulebook strike zone. As previously not mentioned, the dotted square represents the strike zone that is likely to be called against lefties.
He hasn’t been able to do much against the inner-half, but he’s not really getting jammed up either as the majority of pitches are only around six inches from center and further away. The really incredible thing is that we see the same 4.7% swing strike rate now missing 16 of the 344 pitches from righties. Loney is a contact machine that can spoil good pitches and lace bad ones.
I wouldn’t be surprised if pitchers start trying to pound the corners down to try to get Loney to hit more grounders, but those that think he’s been lucky or his success have been a fluke don’t know what they’re talking about. Loney has been able to extend counts until he gets a pitch in the tight butthole zone that he can square up and hit hard. Additionally, he has shown solid zone recognition, for the most part, that has him taking balls and getting himself into better counts where he’s more likely to get something he can handle. To beat him right now you have to think about pounding inside as that’s an area he struggles to do a lot of damage. You would also do well to keep the ball down and whatever you do don’t throw this guy a middle-middle or middle-away pitch because he’s not Carlos Pena trying to yoke everything down the right field line. In this age of prevalent defensive shifting it’s great to see a batter that can spray to all fields and make a pitcher really have to work.