Is James Loney’s Hot Start for the Rays Indicative of a Real Breakthrough?


It just seemed like there was no way it was going to work out. James Loney was never a very good player aside from a strong partial seasons in 2006 and 2007, managing just a .281/.341/.411 line (104 OPS+) from 2008 to 2011, not hitting for nearly as much power as a first baseman should. And then in 2012, he was the worst he had ever been, managing just a .249/.293/.336 line (73 OPS+) in 465 scary plate appearances between the Dodgers and Red Sox. Loney didn’t have any power, couldn’t hit lefties at all, and was coming off a horrific season. How could any team possibly sign him to be their starting first baseman? Well, the Rays deciding to come calling, signing him to a one-year, 2 million dollar contract. They have reaping the rewards ever since as Loney has gotten off to an unbelievable start, managing a .376/.429/.560 line (175 OPS+) with 11 doubles, 3 homers, and 20 RBI in 37 games and 120 plate appearances. But is Loney’s unbelievable performance so far this season something that can last to any extent?

There is proof that Loney has made a conscious change at the plate. Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times noted this in a recent article:

"Technically, the difference is that he is ready to hit sooner, getting his front foot down quicker, allowing for better decision making and a split second of additional reaction time."

Loney has made an adjustment, and maybe that’s the reason he’s doing so well. However, correlation does not imply causation–just because he made the change and he’s doing so well doesn’t mean that the adjustment caused the improvement–and Loney also told Smith that he made the shift after looking at video from his time with the Dodgers. Of course, Loney never hit anything like this in Los Angeles, so it’s preposterous to say that Loney is on fire simply because he reverted to his old habits. With all this in mind, let’s see what the statistics tell us.

The defining stat for Loney is that an incredible 32% of his batted balls have been line drives, the top mark in the American League among qualified hitters. The issue with line drive rate, though, is that it’s an extremely subjective stat (who decides what’s a flyball and what’s a line drive?) that fluctuates quite a bit. (It tells you a lot that Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs can’t agree on players’ line drive rates and something they’re not even close to the same.) There’s a real chance that Loney’s line drive rate, even as high as it is, has a lot to do with luck. If that’s not enough evidence that Loney has been fortunate this season, we go to BAbip.

Loney’s BAbip on the season is a ridiculous .404, second among qualified American League hitters and miles higher than the .296 AL average and his .308 career mark. What’s very interesting, though, is how that BAbip is broken up by batted ball type. The league average BAbips for groundballs is .239 and it’s .112 for flyballs and .691 for line drives. For Loney this season, his BAbip on groundballs is .314, his BAbip on flyballs is .101 and BAbip on line drives is a ridiculous .800. The groundball number specifically stands out–how in the world could a player hit .300 on groundballs, especially without any speed? There’s also no statistical evidence that Loney’s BAbip on groundballs is anything more than luck. The probability of Loney posting a .314 BAbip on groundballs if his true mark should have been .239 is .186, well within the range of normal. If we want to go by Loney’s .223 career BAbip on groundballs instead, the probability is .097, less likely but still not statistically. Loney is getting lucky on groundballs, and if we normalize his batting average on that, his overall average would dip to .352 right off the bat.

His BAbip on line drive is an even more touchy issue, but something that makes sense logically is that if a player hits more line drives (or has more flyballs classified on line drives), his BAbip on those line drives should be lower. For Loney, it’s the exact opposite, but it might be luck again as the probability of him posting a mark as extreme as he did is .082, closer to significant but still not enough to conclude anything. If we keep Loney’s line drive the same but adjust his BAbip from .800 to the .691 average, his average would dip from that .352 mark above to .319. If his line drive goes down towards his career average, it seems like Loney’s average will just continue to dip and his hot streak right now will look like a total fluke. But really, all these stats are doing is telling us something obvious: there’s no chance that Loney will hit .376 for the season. But is there reason to suggest that he hit .320? Even if 80% of his so-called breakthrough is just statistical noise, who’s to say that he couldn’t have improved by a more reasonable 20%?

The simplest way to put it is like this: if Loney goes 109 for his next 391 (.279), he will still be hitting .300 on the season. Loney’s career average is .285 and that’s something certainly within his reach. If he goes 114 for his next 391 (.292), he will be hitting .310. A few more line drives than usual thanks to his adjustment at the plate and that .292 mark will be easily attainable as well. Obviously if Loney hits like that, he won’t be giving the Rays nearly as much production as he has given them so far this season, but if he makes just a slight improvement to what he has done in the past, he will still provide the Rays with as much production as they possibly could have asked for.

Has James Loney suddenly gone from a mediocre player to a star? Almost surely not. Has he made any real improvement? Maybe, but even if he did, it certainly isn’t anything as noticeable as this. Even if his real progress is something subtle, though, the Rays will be absolutely fine with that. Loney has rebounded from his rough 2012 to be as good as he was previously and quite possibly a little better. For just 2 million dollars and for a team in the Rays that ranked last in the American League in batting average from their first basemen last year (.209), getting a player like that is a godsend. If Loney reverts back to the hitter he was in Los Angeles from 2008 to 2011 right now, he still will have made an impact to the Rays’ success this season and given them the extra push they were missing last year that might make all the difference.