What is funny about the Tampa Bay Rays is that year after year, the names change but the story remains the same. Their young starting rotation is among the best in baseball. Their bullpen features several veterans coming off years of inconsistency who suddenly hit their stride in a Rays uniform. And then you have their first baseman, a hitter not known for his power but between a .300 average and strong defense, he proceeds to have a great year. Like Casey Kotchman and Jeff Keppinger before him, James Loney rebounded from a disastrous 2012 season to emerge as one of the Rays’ best hitters in 2013, hitting to a .299/.348/.430 line (118 OPS+) with 33 doubles, 13 homers, and 75 RBI in 158 games and 598 plate appearances. But even after a great year, could teams be wary of him after Kotchman and Keppinger both crumbled after leaving the Rays? Is there reason to believe that Loney will diverge off their path?
Let’s start with a quick comparison of stats between Loney, Kotchman, and Keppinger in their breakout years with the Rays.
What stands out when we eyeball those stats are that Loney had the largest sample size of the three and also the most power, and because the Rays batted more often in the middle of the order, his RBIs tower over the other the two. The other side of the coin, though, is that he simly did not have as impressive numbers, registering an OPS+ 10 points less. He had the worst OBP by a solid margin, and he also struck out the most without walking very much (7.4% walk rate). Then, of course, you look at his batting average on balls in play and see it right where Keppinger’s was at, and the stats are screaming fluke. Somehow the Rays used their black magic once again, and churned out a third season of nearly identical production. Is there any way to look at this differently?
Especially in relation to BAbip, we hear so much about “regression to the mean.” The question, though, is always going to be what that true mean is. When a player has a breakout year, did he make a real adjustment that will allow him to be better moving forward? That is not a question we can answer, so the best we can do to look at future production is look at the past. When we do just that and look at the career numbers for Loney, Kotchman, and Keppinger, the results are pretty staggering.
Looking at Loney’s numbers, you have to be half-certain I made some kind of mistake. His .299/.348/.430 line in 2013 was actually remarkably similar to his .285/.340/.421 career mark, with an increased batting average the only real difference. Adjusting to ballpark makes the difference more extreme, but something quickly becomes clear: Loney’s 2013 numbers were far closer to his career norms than Kotchman and Keppinger. Over the course of his career, Loney has simply been a better player, and his 2013 “breakout” was significantly more moderate. That has to be Exhibit A when discussing why teams should be more confident signing Loney than Kotchman and Keppinger: he has proven himself as a solid player for years now, and even if he doesn’t maintain his 2013 numbers, there is a very good chance he will remain a solid contributor to his team’s success.
The other reason to like Loney more than the others has to do with his platoon splits. If there was any major improvement for Loney, it was his hitting versus left-handed pitching. Loney entered 2013 with a .669 OPS against lefties for his career, and that mark dipped to just .558 from 2010 to 2012. The Rays began the year playing Loney as as little as possible versus lefties believing that his deficiency was still firmly in place. Instead, Loney continued to hit at a decent rate when the Rays put him in the lineup, and he ended up having a solid year versus lefties overall, managing a .299/.339/.390 line (that’s a .729 OPS if you’re too lazy to do the math) in 166 plate appearances. Loney’s .797 OPS versus right-handed pitching was almost exactly his .792 career mark, and the overall difference in his performance between 2013 and his career average was in large part built around his performance against lefties. That doesn’t necessarily mean Loney has suddenly figured lefties out–his strikeout to walk ratio was just 29-10 against them compared to 48-34 versus righties–but the fact that he managed his best mark against lefties in four years while facing a higher percentage of same-side pitchers than he had since 2010 is awfully impressive.
Now let’s compare that to Kotchman and Keppinger. Kotchman’s OPS against righties in 2011 was a .838, and it was .709 against lefties. For his career, those marks are at .731 and .650 respectively. For Keppinger, meanwhile, put up a .755 OPS against righties and a .923 versus lefties. His career marks are at .669 and .828 respectively. What stands out about Loney’s season compared to both of them was that he was the only one of the three not to register an OPS 80 points above his career average against either side. The breakout was against lefties, and the hitting against righties was more or less per usual for Loney. Viewed from this perspective, Loney’s stats don’t scream fluke nearly as loud as Kotchman or Keppinger. One thing worth noting, though, is that Loney’s BAbip versus righties was .318, right near his .315 career average, but his mark against lefties jumped to .350, well above his .291 career mark. Loney seemed to dunk single after single to the opposite field against lefties, but could that have been a fluke? At the same time, though, Kotchman and Keppinger both experiencd BAbip jumps of .035 or higher against pitchers of both sides while Loney’s fluke came against just one. Nothing is certain, but we can reasonably confident that James Loney will hit right-handed pitching moving forward. And while his improvement against lefties is less clear-cut, the fact that he looked so good against them in 2013 can only work in his favor.
James Loney has spent most of his career as an average starting first baseman. You wish he had more power, but between good pure hitting, solid plate discipline, and strong defense, he gave his team enough production to deserve a starting role year after year even if he was far from the ideal. The Rays signed him knowing that unlike Kotchman and Keppinger, he wasn’t a top prospect who had become a bust or a utility player who probably had been playing too often the previous few years. He was a good player coming off a tough year, and the chances of him rebounding and having at least a decent year were pretty high. Moving forward, there is no reason to think Loney any differently than that. Loney may have experienced some luck in 2013, but on the whole he simply returned to being the player he has always been.
The issue for the Rays now, though, is that after a strong season, Loney is not undervalued anymore. He will not make a crazy amount of money–if Keppinger got three years and $12 million, Loney could get three years and $21 million or at least two years and $14 million. But is it really worth $7 million a year for a player you know is average when there has to be another player out there who you can sign with higher upside and less commitment? The difference between James Loney and players like Kotchman and Keppinger is that Loney will likely work out fine for his next team as long as they are not expecting a star. However, unless the Rays see a compelling reason that even a $7 million price tag is worthwhile for Loney, the chances that he becomes the latest first baseman to leave town are extremely high.