Why does Ned Colletti think James Loney is poised for a breakout, after all the years of disappointment?
James Loney is not known for his offense. In fact, he's often derided for his lack of it. First base is the most offense-heavy position in the game, and Loney has hit just .281/.341/.411 the last four years at a position where last year's average first baseman hit .271/.345/.452. That, among other things, makes Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti's statement on MLB Network Radio Friday a curious one:
In the minors, Loney didn't have much power. He topped out at 11 home runs in a full season in Double-A as a 21-year-old, and his eight homers in 98 games in 2006 at Triple-A are somewhat clouded by his home team: Las Vegas. The PCL has its reputation as a hitter's haven because of places like Las Vegas. Granted, he was very young for those levels, so not falling on his face is impressive, never mind that he earned a trip to the majors to stay at that age.
Loney's career-high in the majors for home runs is 15. He achieved that feat back in 2007, when he played in just 96 games, and it still looked like Loney might be able to hit. Since, though, his high is 13, a number he has reached twice, both times in 651 plate appearance seasons. At the rate he hits homers, he would have needed over 1000 plate appearances to hit 20 bombs, and 1,251 -- almost two full seasons -- to hit 25.
Things didn't change much last year, either, when Loney had his age-27 season, the one where a player is generally going to peak and have his career year. Loney hit 12 homers in 582 plate appearances, pushing his slugging percentage over .400 for the first time in three years.
A significant part of the problem is that Loney doesn't hit well in his home park. His career Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) at Dodger Stadium is a middle infielder-esque .113, while on the road he is a much more tolerable .177. It's not perfect, but it at least fits in around the average power output of a first baseman. The Dodgers aren't bringing in the fences for Loney in 2012, though, so what is it that makes Colletti think now, 3,000-plus plate appearances later, that Loney finally has things figured out?
Loney's performance during the last two months of 2011 is the likely source of Colletti's optimism. Over his final 192 plate appearances, Loney went deep eight times, hitting .357/.416/.608 (.251 ISO) and chipping in 17 doubles as well. The left-handed Loney even had some power against his fellow southpaws, slugging .477 against them during that stretch. And, for once, Dodger Stadium wasn't a problem for him: Loney hit .405/.488/.703 there from August through September.
Whether Colletti is on target or not with his positive outlook is another matter. We are talking about fewer than 200 plate appearances, after all, and a whole lot can happen in a stretch like that. Plenty of players succeed like mad for short stretches of a month or two, only to never be that productive again. Then again, there are others. Take this .257/.339/.606 September 2009 from a certain Toronto Blue Jay, for one. (Hint: It's Jose Bautista.) Cases like Bautista, who was a career .386 slugger prior to that month, are a rarity, but with the right changes made to a hitter's approach, wholesale changes are possible. They are just unlikely, is all.
Loney isn't about to be confused for Joey Bats anytime soon, but if there is some major change in his swing mechanics that helped him succeed where he previously failed, (and hey, there might be!) then maybe Colletti is on to something. Of course, that "if" is as huge as the difference between Loney and a productive first baseman has been in the past.