Breakout party: James Loney

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James Loney celebrates with his team after Game 3 of the NLDS. Will drafting him improve your fantasy team’s prospects for a 2009 championship?(Icon/SMI)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve discussed some players who I believe over performed in 2008. In my next few articles, I’d like to discuss some who I believe underperformed in 2008 and who should be undervalued going into 2009.

Today, we’ll talk about Dodgers first baseman James Loney. Check out his fantasy line from this past year:

+------+-----+-----+-------+----+-----+----+----+
| YEAR | AGE | AB  | BA    | HR | RBI | R  | SB |
+------+-----+-----+-------+----+-----+----+----+
| 2008 |  23 | 595 | 0.289 | 13 |  90 | 66 |  7 |
+------+-----+-----+-------+----+-----+----+----+

This is a solid line, but he doesn’t really seem to excel in any one category, and as a first baseman, is rather unspectacular. Let’s check out some more advanced stats to see how things could change next year, though.

Power

+------+-----+---------+-----+----+-----+-------+--------+--------+-----+--------+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM    | AB  | HR | tHR | HR/FB | tHR/FB | nHR/FB | RAW | OF FB% |
+------+-----+---------+-----+----+-----+-------+--------+--------+-----+--------+
| 2006 |  21 | Dodgers | 102 |  4 |   3 |    12 |      9 |      9 | 0.0 |     36 |
| 2007 |  22 | Dodgers | 344 | 15 |   9 |    16 |     10 |      9 | 1.1 |     32 |
| 2008 |  23 | Dodgers | 595 | 13 |  22 |     8 |     14 |     14 | 0.0 |     31 |
+------+-----+---------+-----+----+-----+-------+--------+--------+-----+--------+

If you’re new to THT Fantasy Focus and are unfamiliar with True Home Runs (tHR) or any of the other stats I’m using, check out our quick reference guide. These stats provide a much clearer picture of a player’s talent, so it’s well worth taking a couple of minutes to learn them.

Many people considered Loney’s power this year a disappointment. In just 344 at-bats in 2007, he pounded 15 long balls, making him a popular speculative pick this year. In 250 additional at-bats, though, Loney hit two fewer home runs. I suspect a lot of fantasy owners, in re-evaluating this post-hype Loney, will see this drop-off, see that he didn’t show much power in the minors, and conclude that Loney is simply a 12-15 home run player.

This might not be the case, though. While Loney only hit 13 home runs in 2008, True Home Runs thought he should have hit 22. That’s quite a difference, and a very favorable sign for 2009.

We do need to take note that his tHR/FB was just 10 percent in 2007, and the jump to 14 percent in 2008 is based on a one-year sample size. While Loney didn’t post big power numbers in the minors, he was generally young for each level he was at (i.e. 21 and 22 years old at Triple-A). So while we need to temper expectations a little bit, it is certainly possible that Loney did experience a legitimate breakout in 2008 (which went unnoticed due to some bad luck), and at age 24 it will simply continue this pace.

This is the scenario fantasy owners should hope for, and one that would likely make Loney significantly undervalued in 2009.

There is one more reason to take pause, though. Loney doesn’t hit a lot of fly balls to begin with, and if we split up his batted ball stats to include fliners (which are balls that are borderline flyballs/line drives), we see that he took a step backward in 2008:

+------+-----+---------+-----+--------+-----+-----+--------+-----+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM    | AB  | OF FB% | FL% | LD% | IF FB% | GB% |
+------+-----+---------+-----+--------+-----+-----+--------+-----+
| 2006 |  21 | Dodgers | 102 |     30 |   9 |   9 |      3 |  49 |
| 2007 |  22 | Dodgers | 344 |     27 |  11 |  15 |      5 |  42 |
| 2008 |  23 | Dodgers | 595 |     21 |  19 |  13 |      3 |  44 |
+------+-----+---------+-----+--------+-----+-----+--------+-----+

Without including fliners, his outfield fly rate was steady from 2007 to 2008 (32 and 31 percent, respectively). When we refine our stats, though, we see that many of those 2008 flies were actually fliners, meaning they were closer to being line drives than true fly balls. Since fliners only go for homers at rate of 5 percent (and outfield flies at 12 percent), you can see why this change could hurt his power if it continues.

This could be the result of slight change in his swing (either intentional or unintentional), or it could just be random fluctuation. Overall, though, the power downside for Loney is essentially his 2008 numbers. He probably won’t hit fewer than 11 or 12 homers, but his upside is 25 home runs, which very well could be worth chasing. We’ll make a final determination on that at the end of the article.

Contact

+------+-----+---------+-----+-------+-------+-----+-------+--------+-----+--------+---------+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM    | AB  | BA    | tBA   | CT% | BABIP | mBABIP | LD% | BIP/HR | BIP/tHR |
+------+-----+---------+-----+-------+-------+-----+-------+--------+-----+--------+---------+
| 2006 |  21 | Dodgers | 102 | 0.284 | 0.299 |  90 | 0.284 |  0.312 |  12 |     23 |      31 |
| 2007 |  22 | Dodgers | 344 | 0.331 | 0.303 |  86 | 0.352 |  0.339 |  22 |     20 |      33 |
| 2008 |  23 | Dodgers | 595 | 0.289 | 0.307 |  86 | 0.320 |  0.323 |  22 |     39 |      23 |
+------+-----+---------+-----+-------+-------+-----+-------+--------+-----+--------+---------+

Loney had a tremendous rookie year in 2007 with a .331 batting average. This was largely driven by an inflated home run rate and an excellent (though not that lucky) BABIP. True Batting Average saw him as a .303 hitter, and this improved to .307 in 2008. There was a drop in his mBABIP, but the favorable True Home Run numbers (which we discussed above) helped push his tBA up.

When dealing with young players, it’s also important to look at their minor league BABIP track record since Marcels (and therefore mBABIP) doesn’t take minor leagues into account. In 2006, Loney’s Triple-A BABIP was a ridiculous .404 in 366 at-bats. If we convert this to an MLE, though, it falls to a more reasonable .341. In 2007, his MLE BABIP was .294 in 233 at-bats (here, we should note that his contact rate and power were out of line with what he had done previous and what he’s done since, so it’s possible he wasn’t himself, either due to injury or some other reason).

So while there may be some upside for Loney as he matures as a hitter, his Marcels BABIP seems to have him about right. If you want to ignore his 2007 minor league BABIP and include his 2006 one, you might get away with bumping his 2008 mBABIP up to .330, which would cause his tBA to rise to .313. Plus, as he approaches his prime, that BABIP only figures to rise.

It’s unclear how other owners will view Loney’s contact skills, but we should look upon them favorably. He probably won’t bat .331 this year, but he should easily be able to eclipse .300, well-above his 2008 figure.

Speed

+------+-----+---------+-----+----+-----+-------+------+------+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM    | AB  | SB | SBA | SBO%  | SBA% | SB% |
+------+-----+---------+-----+----+-----+-------+------+------+
| 2006 |  21 | Dodgers | 102 |  1 |   1 | 0.198 |    5 |  100 |
| 2007 |  22 | Dodgers | 344 |  0 |   1 | 0.269 |    1 |    0 |
| 2008 |  23 | Dodgers | 595 |  7 |  11 | 0.246 |    7 |   64 |
+------+-----+---------+-----+----+-----+-------+------+------+

Loney didn’t do much running at the major league level until this year. He managed to steal seven bases, but he didn’t do it very efficiently, succeeding on just 64 percent of his attempts. Luckily for Loney, though, manager Joe Torre likes to let his players run, often finding his teams in the top 5 for stolen base attempts. He’s let his team attempt 160 or more steals three years in a row and has averaged 155 attempts since 1994. Because of this, Loney could very well steal five to 10 bases again this year, even if he’s thrown out just as often as he succeeds.

Loney’s minor league history looks very much like his 2008 campaign in terms of steals (single digit successes mixed with quite a few failed attempts), so as long as Torre gives the okay, I’d imagine Loney would be comfortable attempting 10-15 steals. The only word of warning comes from his 2007 season: manager Grady Little attempted a lot of steals that year (187) and during his career, but Loney only attempted one.

Market value

The usual disclaimer still applies here: we’re looking at a small-ish sample and some year-end data that may not actually be measuring exactly what we’re looking for. Once more rankings start coming out we’ll have more to look at. For now, here’s what Loney’s value is shaping up as:

CBS Sportsline Expert Draft No. 1: 14th 1B (121st Overall/R11)
CBS Sportsline Mock Draft No. 1: 15th 1B (125th Overall/R11)
Mock Draft No. 1: 16th 1B (116th Overall/R10)
CBS Sportsline: 16th No. B (134th Overall)
ProTrade Value: 19th 1B (82nd Hitter)
Yahoo! Big Board: Not Listed – Outside Top 11 1B (Top 107 Overall)

The general impression of Loney seems to be a .300+ hitter with 12-15 home run power and the ability to steal a few bases. As a first baseman, this isn’t super-valuable, and means most people will use him as a corner infielder. No one above saw Loney as a top 12 first baseman, sometimes even taking guys like Chris Davis and Conor Jackson ahead of him.

Concluding thoughts

While I’d prefer to get him in round 12 or 13, if an 11th-round pick is needed, Loney still deserves serious consideration. He should hit at least .300—most likely higher—and may well be turning into a legitimate power threat. The sample size we’re looking at is somewhat small, but the numbers we have are favorable and he’s at a good age for progression. Batting fourth or fifth should allow him to drive in 100 runs if the power spike turns out to be for real, and 75 or 80 runs would come along with it (this number could rise if he starts walking more).

Worst case scenario is a line like .290-12-80-60-0 (ignoring the possibility of injury). Best case is a line like .310-25-110-80-10. Even if Loney hits the worst case scenario, you’re really not losing much value with an 11th round pick. If he approaches the best case line, though, he is a steal. If you’re looking to take risks, or at least looking to mix some high-upside guys into your draft plan, Loney would be a nice choice.

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