Commentary

Dodgers' Loney in position of power

Is there a place for a James Loney when first basemen stereotypically blast HRs?

Updated: July 10, 2010, 1:19 AM ET
By Brian Kamenetzky | ESPNLosAngeles.com

The swing has always been there.

The bat control and the ability to hit to all fields, too.

But into the fifth year of his major league career, we're still waiting for James Loney to display consistent home run power. After hitting 15 in only 344 at-bats as a 23-year-old in 2007, Loney put only 26 balls over the wall in 1,302 plate appearances over his next two seasons. This year he's fallen behind that already modest pace, with only five homers in 361 trips to the plate.

[+] EnlargeJames Loney
AP Photo/Al BehrmanJames Loney has just five home runs in more than 325 at-bats this season.

Not that the Blue have abandoned hope. "As he continues to mature as a hitter and continues to learn his swing I think he'll start to hit 20 to 25 home runs," says Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti. "Once he starts to pull. Because he has great pull power, it's just that his approach is typically [to hit] the other way."

Colletti's hope isn't without historical precedent. Over his first 2,031 at-bats, Rafael Palmeiro had 47 homers. Jeff Bagwell had 53 in 1,675, Steve Garvey 46 in 1,606. Loney has 50 in 1,943. Power can develop later in a player's career.

But what if it doesn't?

First base has traditionally been viewed as a big stick position patrolled by swagger-laden giants like Gehrig, Foxx and McCovey. And unlike some of baseball's sacred cows, this one hasn't been assigned to the dusty bin of baseball mythology. Last year, six of the top seven home run hitters across the majors were first basemen. But power isn't the only available template for success at the position.

Mark Grace played 16 seasons, made three All-Star teams, amassed 2,445 hits and retired with a .303 career average and .383 on-base percentage. All while averaging 12 homers a year and never hitting more than 16. Keith Hernandez made five All-Star squads, won 11 Gold Gloves and three times finished in the top five in MVP voting, winning in 1979. Only once in 17 seasons did he hit as many as 18 homers. John Olerud's HR numbers were never off the charts despite playing in a power-saturated era. Will Clark and Don Mattingly both went long stretches as very productive hitters who didn't hit many home runs.

Ned Colletti If [the first baseman doesn't] hit 35 home runs, can you produce enough runs? And the answer is, well, it depends on the rest of your club.

-- Dodgers GM Ned Colletti

That guy -- the high average, high OBP, good glove first baseman -- was made virtually extinct as the game entered fully into the steroid era. Fifteen homers just didn't cut it in a game where shortstops and second basemen were hitting 40 a year, and even the most light-hitting of players seemed to pop 15 to 20.

Loney, as a player and a concept, didn't fit that world.

Whether because pitching has improved or PED testing has worked -- or both -- the game has reverted to older dynamics. According to ESPN Stats and Information, through June 20 this year each game has averaged 1.85 homers. In 2000, the same stretch of season yielded 2.57. Team ERAs this year (again, through June 20) averaged 4.17, versus 4.84 in 2000. Both power stats, from home runs to slugging percentage, and ERAs have trended downward since the turn of the century. So while 13 first basemen this year have at least 15 home runs, the influence of the long ball on the game generally has diminished.

So is it safe again to be James Loney? Could the high-average, good glove first baseman be making a comeback?

[+] EnlargeMark Grace
AP Photo/Fred JewellMark Grace played 16 seasons in the major leagues and never hit more than 17 home runs.

"It's possible," Colletti says. "If you have the rest of your team in a good spot. If you can pitch and you can catch it, then it really becomes a run production question. Can you produce enough runs?

"If [the first baseman doesn't] hit 35 home runs, can you produce enough runs? And the answer is, well, it depends on the rest of your club."

Meaning if the power doesn't come from the corners, it has to come from somewhere else, something Colletti knows from earlier in his career with the Cubs and Giants. "When I was in Chicago, we had Grace and [Ryne] Sandberg. That was different, because you're getting 30 home runs out of Ryno and 10 to 12 to 15 from Mark. You could do that," he says. "In San Francisco, after the new ballpark opened, J.T. Snow's home runs started to dissipate. But we had Jeff Kent, who could hit 35. So you could flip it around a little."

The Dodgers, though, haven't. Blake DeWitt isn't a power hitter at second. The long ball, like seemingly everything else in his offensive game, has deserted Russell Martin. Rafael Furcal provides a little pop at short, but only Matt Kemp can be called a "power guy" in a traditional non-power position. Meanwhile, at the other corner, Casey Blake has only nine home runs.

Yet the Dodgers, despite injuries to many of their frontline offensive players, are sill a top-third team in runs scored, in part because Loney is driving in runs with the big boys at his position. A .255 hitter with a .710 OPS when nobody is on base, Loney's average jumps to .357 with a .912 OPS with runners in scoring position. This explains his 59 RBIs, good for seventh in the National League.

"That's pretty good production," Joe Torre says.

Power, Torre notes, can provide a false sense of security for a lineup, particularly once the postseason rolls around. "I had it with New York, we had guys who were capable of hitting home runs. Unfortunately, we'd get to the postseason and have trouble scoring runs because now those pitchers on the mound don't give you those liberties," he says. "Postseason, it's not how far you hit it, it's how often."

Loney's hitting philosophy reflects that approach.

In Monday's 6-5 loss to Florida, he picked up his 57th RBI of the year, slapping Clay Hensley's 3-1 offspeed offering, up and away, into the left-field corner for a double.

[+] EnlargeWill Clark
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesEven first basemen like Will Clark, above, and Don Mattingly went stretches in their careers when they didn't hit many home runs.

It was a nice piece of hitting, taking what was given to him rather than waiting for what probably would have been a 3-2 fastball. But Loney's approach is hardly universal.

"A lot of guys, I think they may take that pitch off the corner and look for a better pitch to [drive]," he says. "I've been pretty good at being able to hit those tough pitches. I try to look at it, I guess, from a different point. Becoming a good hitter, and then seeing what happens," he says.

"Home runs are thrown. They're in certain spots. You can't elevate every single ball, every single strike."

Loney prefers to react rather than look for a particular pitch. "A lot of people are guess hitters. [They] just sit on maybe a slider, so if they get it they can hit it out," he says. Loney doesn't like to let a hitable ball go by.

"Who's to say you're going to get a better pitch?"

Colletti and Torre both note, too, how like Grace, Snow, Hernandez and Olerud, Loney's glove helps keep runs off the board, shrinking the gap between a more powerful but less leathery first baseman. It's a reasonable point, even if Loney hasn't quite reached as lofty a status defensively as some of the other players cut from a similar mold. He's still very good.

Torre and Colletti freely acknowledge the value of the home run, and while Loney's productivity has been impressive, the inability to go deep leaves him with virtually no margin for error as a run producer. By definition, the lack of home runs robs him of perhaps 30 RBIs a more powerful first baseman gets by driving himself in and forces Loney to generate them one or two at a time. Is that .357 mark with RISP sustainable? Over the last two seasons, he hit about .300 in such situations, certainly respectable, and drove in 90 runs in each.

Also not bad, but also not the 110-plus pace he's set for 2010.

Loney can still improve. Even if he never becomes Adrian Gonzalez, a little boost in homers would be nice. His career OBP of .353 lags well behind the Grace/Hernandez/Olerud crowd. Still, if Loney can build on his level of success, he'll not only bolster L.A.'s lineup but also help revive a style of play at his position seemingly Dodo-fied a decade ago. It may not represent the ideal and will require Colletti to find alternative sources of muscle in a landscape when less is available.

But as in so many things, often the enemy of the very good is the better. In a league where even the most ordinary players no longer post numbers like something out of a video game, it's easier for Loney to look good by comparison.

Says Colletti, "If he ends up with a career like Mark Grace? Yeah, I'll take that."

Brian Kamentzky is a reporter and blogger for ESPNLosAngeles.com

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