Thursday, July 19, 2012

James Loney's Power Outage

James Loney, in the midst of an awful slump and utterly forgettable season, is on pace to be an obvious DFA choice this winter. And who could blame the Dodgers organization? His current HR/FB ratio is lower than all qualified first basemen in the majors (note that Loney himself is not qualified). His OBP is teetering precipitously above .300. His defense is still there, but his offense has been so bad that he has earned a WAR of -0.2 so far this season. Juan Rivera, his competitor, has put up an amazing WAR of -0.3 which explains why the Dodgers have seemed to prefer him at the position to Loney (well okay, it's not as if they just spurn these statistics and do the opposite, but perception seems to be more important than performance). So there is no hope left, right?

Here is the issue. Loney's power has just been completely eviscerated. His HR/FB ratio is at just 2.7%. Even Tony Gwynn Jr. has bested that value the past two years. Power does not just suddenly vanish at age 28. Something is amiss. The first issue could be luck, and yes, you would have a point. Loney has just 280 plate appearances, and luck could play a huge role at this point in the season. In fact, his .275 BABIP (career .307) that Loney has been an unlucky guy up to this point in the season. His K% and BB% are not very different from career norms. In fact, using his power numbers and plate discipline numbers from this season, and career BABIP, Loney should have a wRC+ of 91. It's still bad for a first baseman, but Loney's wRC+ currently sits at 66. That is a huge improvement that is mostly BABIP fueled.

But still, what about the power? Looking at career numbers, I saw the HR/FB ratio when Loney Pulls/Middle/Opposite. The numbers are 27/3.1/1. The closest I could find to these numbers was Casey Kotchman, whose numbers are 26.6/3.5/0.8. They are essentially the same in terms of power. Combining both of their stats, I made a scatter plot using season ratios of pull/opposite. Here are the results.

Admittedly this is not very informative, but the trend is there. In general, pulling the ball more often will get these guys better numbers. However, some of the best numbers came when they did so a little less. The peak may be somewhere between 1.4 and 1.6. But there are so many other variables that can impact performance that trying to look at just one gives you a muddied picture. Still, anything less than 1.3 seems to be the formula for average at best production.

I was much more fascinated by this chart. The trend in this is much stronger and even sharper. These guys will get more power when they pull the ball more. That low number near 2% is James Loney this year, and barely pulling the ball more than he hits the other way seems to be the culprit. If Loney could get his HR rate just to 2010 numbers (and that was a low point for his power), he would have a wRC+ of roughly 101. Even average offensive production would be a huge boost to the dreadful Dodgers lineup.

But I guess now would be a good time to note that Kotchman gets a better wRC+ when he goes the opposite way, even though he has more power when he pulls the ball. That's due to BABIP issues, though I wonder how often he is shifted against and how responsible that could be. Loney, on the other hand, is giving opposing teams no reason to shift. Kotchman has a wRC+ of 90/92/107 when he pulls, hits up the middle, and goes the other way respectively. Loney, on the other hand, has a wRC+ of  153/99/87. When your offensive and power numbers have this great of a disparity, why would you not take advantage of it?

Loney still has some upside, and pulling the ball more often may be the only way he will buy his way back onto the team. I don't know why Mattingly gave him the advice to go the other way so often. It hasn't worked and it won't work. Just pull the ball, and if you please, quit hitting groundballs, we're all sick of the double plays.

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