2014 Hitter Evaluations: James Loney

With only 49 days until Opening Day for the Rays I figured it was time to start moving along through our hitter evaluations. Today we’ll be looking at what worked and didn’t work for Loney in 2014 while also taking a broader look at his career to see where he excels and falls short. Let’s begin there:

We’ll start with his raw and Z-Scores compared to his peers for each of these years. We see a lot of green for avoiding not only strikeouts, but also infield fly balls over the past several years. These are always outs and never advance a runner. This is a good skill to have for a guy that wants to drive runners in often. He also gets high grades for avoiding swing strikes and making contact in the zone. His weaknesses are the well below average power and lesser below average walk rates. Add it all up and you have a the profile of an up-the-middle player at 1B, which may seem odd, but does bring value when it comes to batting average and driving runners in. Let’s flip over to the rank and percentile chart where I’m not going to go over much since it’s just a different way to look at the above, but I think it does a better job of showing where he falls amongst his peers in these categories:

One of the interesting things that I learned is how rarely Loney sees strikes. Pitchers know that he can hit just about any pitch in the zone so they try to get him to expand. It would not surprise me to see that when Loney’s going well he’s doing a great job of staying within the zone and when he’s expanding more than normal you’re seeing him in a bit of a funk. Where possible I’ve tried to scale these so that the higher percentile is better, but I did much a column up as Infield Hit% (IFH%) is going the wrong way. Not surprisingly, you’re not going to see Loney get many infield scratch hits, though his speed score reached a three-year high in 2014.

Using these methods it’s pretty easy to see where a hitter makes hay and when it rains, but let’s use Jeff Zimmerman’s indispensable Baseball Heatmaps to take a look at what Loney was doing well and less so in 2014 by pitch type and handedness. I’ll start with the fastball and all sections will be the same starting off with swing rates in 2014 compared to the rest of his career and then the lower two images will be Run Values in 2014 compared to the rest of career. Doing this gives an incredible view of where the batter struggled or shined compared to his past self.

Fastballs (four, two, cutter, sinker)

         

His swings were mostly similar with a slight elevation in rate throughout the zone, but against same-siders he was showing increased patience down & in and up & away with a drastically higher rate on pitches up & in. He was a much worse hitter by run values against lefties than he has been throughout his career with a pretty massive whole on the inner third of the plate, but still showing some success when pitchers left the ball up and over to away.

Righties got him to swing a ton more on fastballs down & in which proved to be a rough area for run values, as well. His approach lends well to pitches that are out and over the plate which you can imagine leads to some issues getting jammed. These are good pitches that he’s either going to need to either just take early in the count or foul off late. I’d love to see him turn and burn on these more, but that’s just not his style and I’d be afraid that everything else craters in the effort to close one hole. He also struggled on up & in heat and you can see a pretty solid shape that looks an awful lot like an Effective Velocity chart. Let’s move on to the breaking ball.

Breaking Balls (Slider, Curve, Knuckle Curve)

         

Lefties were able to get Loney to swing more often by working the zone laterally. The pitches that ended up inside saw him putting up worse run values, but the ones that were away kind of play to his ability as he can drop soft serve over shortstop all day long. Nothing too egregious here. Against righties, it’s interesting to see him just spit all over pitches that fall in up & in. You’re not going to get him chase up there, though if you can drop it a little lower towards the middle of the zone and get it on the edge you might have some success judging by his run values. Other than the patches we see that he was ever-so-slightly better throughout most of the zone against both types of pitches. Loney doesn’t look like a guy that has any

Trouble with the curve YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!

Change Ups (Change up, Splitter)

         

We won’t spend much time on the lefty change ups as he only saw 50 or so of them over the season leading to the wild extremes in the swing chart. The RV chart is interesting in that it shows him mostly being the same other than struggling a bit more with change ups down & away which is a tough pitch for a lefty to execute and if they leave it up he showed the ability to hit it a bit. He did see a couple hundred changes from righties with the only difference being more of an aversion to swing at the borderline pitches and a better ability to lay off those well above the zone. Looks good. Run Values tell a similar story with most of the zone being either a little better or a little worse, though if that pitch got left up he was able to hurt it.

All Pitches

          

Having broken this down individually I think the biggest benefit to seeing everything mapped together is just to get a general sense of what his zone profile looked like. Lefties got him to swing a little more on the borders of the zone and a lot less on up & away and down & in. He was mostly fine against them on pitches up & away, but the rest of his zone took a turn for the worse against fellow southpaws. They were able to eat him alive on the inner third and do a little damage low & away.

His swing patterns were mostly the same against righties, however, with small oscillations within the zone and some better choices above it. You’d think you’d see similar success, but that wasn’t really the case as even against righties he saw some decline in his run values throughout much of the zone. The inside decline isn’t much of a surprise as we’ve established that Loney loves to lean over, but that low & away quadrant was kind of a downer, as well.

Loney is a guy that is pretty clearly seeing his bat speed decline, which shouldn’t be a surprise for a guy that will be 31 for almost all of the upcoming season. I don’t think that’s reversible, but the bright side is that he can still do damage on secondary pitches over the majority of the zone and his opposite-field approach should allow him to continue to handle most fastballs. If pitchers pick up on his slower bat speed then you may see them give him more fastballs so it might be a good idea to not have a base stealer in front of him. He still profiles as a guy that does an excellent job of putting the ball in play most at bats so outside of poor ball in play luck he should still harbor a nice average and acceptable OBP, though I think the power continues to trend down.

I’d think about giving him a trial period against lefties this year and not be afraid to hook him if you think you can field a better lineup. He has traditionally shown a fairly wide split against them and that looks to have separated further in 2014. If Loney could play up the middle he’d be an All Star, but since he’s relegated to 1B the bat really needs to play and it looks like he’s following a pretty normal aging curve. Here’s hoping the Rays can continue to get some juice out of him over the rest of the contract. I think next year might not be all that pretty, but he still has a chance this year to do some things to contribute and if the balls really falling in you could see him make a chase for a .300 batting average while providing around a 110 wRC+. The Rays could really use it.

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About Jason Hanselman

Rays fan.
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