James Loney: Looking Back, Moving Forward
Prior to the 2014 season, the Tampa Bay Rays signed James Loney to a three-year deal worth $21 million. It was a pretty major commitment by Rays standards, but after Loney’s impressive 2013 campaign, the team felt like it was a worthy investment to have first base locked down for the next three seasons. Loney rewarded the Rays with another solid year in 2014, albeit not quite as good as 2013, and was once again a key contributor on the team. Let’s take a look at James Loney’s 2014 season.
Offensively, Loney put up another solid season, although his power did regress towards his career norms. His line of .290/.336/.380 amounted to a 106 OPS+, exactly his career average, and he continued his consistency as a contact hitter as evident by his strikeout rate of 12.3%. Speaking of his 106 OPS+, it was also an indicator that he was one of the team’s most successful hitters as he trailed only Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria among Rays with 500 plate appearances. Loney’s .290 average and 174 hits led the team, and he ranked second with 69 RBI and third with 27 doubles while adding 9 home runs.
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Loney benefited once again from a high batting average on balls in play of .319, but it is becoming more evident that Loney has an ability to sustain such a number. Loney’s BAbip fell only slightly from his .326 mark from 2013, and he has a .309 BAbip for his career. Thanks to Loney’s aptitude at using the entire field, it will not be surprising to see hits continue to fall for Loney at a rate higher than other hitters.
One negative for James Loney–and a major reason his numbers declined from 2013–was that he resumed his struggles against left-handed pitching. Loney managed a .726 OPS in 126 plate appearances against lefties in 2013 after not putting up even a .600 OPS against them since 2009, but he fell back to just a .601 mark this season. Loney still hit for a decent .256 average against lefties, but he showed neither power (.314 SLG) nor plate discipline (.287). Loney still delivered good at-bats, and that counts for something–this certainly is not a Matt Joyce situation. Nevertheless, we should see him platooned more against lefties in 2015.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of Loney’s season was his decline defensively. Loney had always been regarded as a slick defender at first base and that was one of the reasons the Rays signed him in the first place. From 2012 to 2013, Loney averaged a 9.35 UZR/150 and 5 defensive runs saved per season. In 2014, however, he fell to just a -1.8 mark according to UZR and a -1.0 DRS.
The good news is that there is reason to believe that Loney will be fine. From the eye test, we saw Loney make a few less scoops and other such plays at first, and it was bad luck that he bunched several of his rare misplays together in one year. Fangraphs’ Inside Edge Fielding quantifies that, noting that Loney actually converted higher percentages of “unlikely” and “even” plays into out, but saw a decline in the “likely” category. There is no reason other than chance that something like that should happen. Expect Loney to rebound defensively in 2015 and become a plus defender again.
In a season where the Rays lacked offense, James Loney continued to be a bright spot. Loney’s low-strikeout, high-contact approach is something the Rays’ generally seek in their hitters and he will continue to put that on display in 2015. Although he was only worth 0.9 fWAR in 2014 (compared to 1.5 bWAR), Steamer is projecting he’ll be worth 1.7 next season, largely because his defense is likely to rebound. James Loney has been a key part of the Rays both offensively and defensively over the past two seasons and expect him to continue that in his third year in Tampa Bay.