James Loney: An Exception to the Rule

There’s a vast misconception throughout the game of baseball concerning what epitomizes an elite first baseman in this day and age. It’s an erroneous notion that often takes just one characteristic into consideration: power. Numerous talented players have been deemed unworthy to play the position due to a slugging deficiency, even if they excel in multiple other aspects.

That’s why, when James Loney, then 28, found himself in the midst of free agency after stumbling through a deplorable 2012 season that included a mid-season trade to the ailing Boston Red Sox, the market for the power-lacking on-base machine was exceedingly paltry. This worked to the advantage of the Tampa Bay Rays, who were shopping for inexpensive help after parting ways with declining slugger Carlos Pena.

The brilliance of Andrew Friedman and the rest of Tampa Bay’s executive group was on full display once again when they inked Loney to a one-year deal worth a base salary of $2 million, less than one-third of the $6.375 million he earned the previous season in his final turn though the arbitration process. Undoubtedly motivated by the uncertainty of a one-year contract, Loney was faced not only with the task of proving himself to a new club, but also the arduous undertaking of discrediting the overwhelming perception that a player with his skill set wasn’t suited to stick around at a prestigious corner infield spot.

Loney didn’t just enjoy a rebound campaign in 2013, he defied conventional wisdom in every way imaginable, providing the Rays with remarkable consistency both offensively and defensively, and playing an instrumental role in the team’s run to the postseason. For a hitter that only managed 13 home runs, Loney slugged to a very respectable .430 clip in 2013. The extra-base hits (mostly doubles) came at a surprisingly steady pace, and it quickly became evident that the Rays had gone down to the bargain bin and found themselves a star for the umpteenth time.

Loney arrived in Tampa Bay with a very unique assortment of skills, many of which had been previously untapped. The organization known for so effectively bringing in flawed players and making the most of their abilities had another project on their hands, and they were prepared. Loney, though, was not in any way short on talent, but simply in need of a change in approach. The Rays encouraged Loney to play to his strengths, instead of placing unreasonable expectations and pressure on him to be something he never will be.

Essentially, the Rays turned Loney into a line drive-hitting monster. His line drive rate spiked to nearly 30% in 2013, a significant increase from his previous averages. Since line drives predictably result in astronomical offensive statistics — slugging aside — Loney’s aptitude in this area made him an extremely dangerous threat behind Evan Longoria in the lineup. By focusing more on hard contact and spraying the ball to all fields, Loney reinvented himself, reinvigorated his career, and began to redefine this rule in the process.

After that stellar rebound campaign, the consensus impression was that Loney would be too expensive for Tampa Bay to re-sign. Loney was reportedly seeking a deal in the range of three years and $27-30 million, which seemed realistic, considering his recent success and the weak positional market. However, his shortage in the power department inexplicably cost him once again, and allowed the Rays to sign him to a reasonable three-year contract worth $21 million. It wasn’t quite what he was looking for, but still a healthy raise.

Loney maintained a similar level of consistency in 2014, but showed a few signs of minor regression. He became an extreme singles hitter, which led to a decreased slugging percentage. He also took a step back defensively, dropping his UZR from 6.1 in 2013 to -1.5 in 2014. I’m not one to put much stock in defensive metrics, but I can’t deny that there was a rather puzzling drop-off in Loney’s fielding. Even in what was a disappointing and likely anomalous season, Loney managed a .290 average and .336 OBP in an everyday role.

There’s little doubt that Loney will return to his previous defensive form, and it’s also very plausible to expect a bit more production offensively, largely due to the swinging pendulum of luck. Assuming he maintains an elevated line drive rate (it dipped slightly in 2014 to 26.6%), those balls will eventually begin to find the gaps, turning singles into doubles and propelling his slugging percentage into a more satisfactory state, as was the case throughout the 2013 season.

Even if Loney can’t quite duplicate that marvelous 2013 season, he will surely continue to be a stable force with elite-level on-base skills. This opinion that Loney’s bat doesn’t “play well” at first is something that baffles me. If he would be considered an adequate offensive option at another position — and he absolutely would — then this outlook seems exceedingly foolish. Sure, power is becoming a rare and expensive commodity, but it’s certainly not everything.

If nothing else, Loney has, in my mind, proven that a high-average, low-power type of hitter can succeed at the position, and there’s something to be said for that ongoing accomplishment. Ultimately, if I had the opportunity to construct a model first baseman from scratch, the final product would come out looking (and hitting) a lot like James Loney.

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