Ned Colletti recently said on MLB Network Radio that James Loney will be the Dodgers first baseman next season, and that he may hit a possible 20-25 homeruns.
The first part of Ned’s statement isn’t very surprising. We knew that the Dodgers weren’t about to sign a big free agent like Pujols or Fielder. The highly optimistic theory that James will hit that many homeruns is a head scratcher indeed since Loney hasn’t hit more than 15 homeruns in his career, and that was back in 2007 during his second year in the Majors.
Last season Loney had what could have been both his best and worst year all wrapped up in one. For most of the season we witnessed Loney during a downright awful slump. It was painful to watch at times. Most at-bats ended with softly hit groundballs which rarely made it out of the infield. We dubbed him our “DF” or “Designated Fielder” since his only value at that time was his excellent glove. After many gray days, we were left with the question, “What happened to James Loney?”
Originally a pitcher out of Texas, James Loney was drafted by the Dodgers in the first round, and he found success in the minor leagues soon after. Loney led all of baseball, major and minor leagues, with a .380 average while playing for the AAA Las Vegas 51s in 2006. He was also named the Dodgers Minor League Player of the Year.
James debuted with the Dodgers April 4, 2006 after Nomar Garciaparra became disabled. He is part of the core group of players who came up during the 2005-2006 seasons which included Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Jonathan Broxton, and Andre Ethier. I also like to include the signing of free agent Hiroki Kuroda. In 2007 Nomar was moved to 3rd base to make room for the hot hitting rookie. Loney was named the National League Rookie of the Month for September and finished sixth in the voting for the 2007 NL Sporting News Rookie of the Year Award.
In 2008 Loney had a solid year and finished with a .289 average with 13 homeruns and a team leading 90 RBIs. He even hit a grand slam during game 1 of the NLDS off of Ryan Dempster helping the Dodgers win the game 7-2 over the Chicago Cubs.
Loney put up similar numbers in subsequent years, and his career batting average sits at .288. Disappointingly last season he only managed 65 RBIs and 12 homeruns. These numbers would have been even lower if it wasn’t for Loney’s phoenix from the ashes comeback in his last 200 at-bats of the season. We had all but given up on poor Loney, and he was almost assured a one way ticket to non-tenderdom in the offseason after his abysmal start. From opening day through July 19, Loney hit .263 with 13 doubles, only 4 homeruns and a measly 31 RBIs. He posted a .310 on-base percentage and drew 23 walks while striking out 41 times. The turning point came when the Dodgers fired hitting coach Jeff Pentland and promoted Dave Hansen. During these last couple months Loney hit 8 homeruns, 17 doubles and put up a line of .405/.488/.703. We noticed a difference with the mechanics of his swing, and coupled with his strong defense we began to worry less about Loney’s problems and focus more on the other team issues. Loney was no longer the weakest link. We began to accept the fact that Loney was coming back next year as our first baseman. Whether the coaching change was the difference, it’s hard to tell, but we all know how coaching can impact a player dramatically. We saw the influence of positive coaching had in the instance of Matt Kemp’s turnaround from the 2010 to 2011 season.
Even though first base is a position where power reigns, James Loney has never been one to hit a lot of homeruns. To expect 20-25 next season is a big stretch. Another issue Loney faces is his lack of hitting at home in Dodger Stadium. Loney hits better on the road, and we often wondered whether he would thrive more on another team. His splits at home vs. away are noticeably skewed. Take a look at his career split stats:
Apparently Ned Colletti thinks Loney can break out next season and hit for more power. On one hand I respect the fact Ned is sticking by his core and not giving up on most of them, yet there is just so long we can wait for Loney to produce what we need from first base before we move on to other options. Let’s accept that Loney will be playing first next season with Rivera and or Sands as an occasional back-up, and let’s hope that we get the Loney we saw in the later part of the season rather than the beginning.