Career Profile: James Loney
Per reader request, here is a look at the career of Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman James Loney, what he looked like as a prospect, where he is now, and where he might be in the future.
James Loney was drafted by the Dodgers in the first round in 2002, the 19th overall pick, out of high school in Missouri City, Texas. A two-way player in high school, he was a prospect as both a pitcher and hitter and had a Baylor scholarship. The Dodgers signed him for $1.5 million and made him a full-time first baseman, although many other teams thought his upside was higher on the mound. The Dodgers liked his athleticism, quick bat, and polished swing, and felt he would hit for both average and power, along with excellent defense. He started his career at Great Falls in the Pioneer League, hitting a robust .371/.457/.624 in 47 games, with a terrific 25/18 BB/K in 170 at-bats. Promoted to High-A Vero Beach, he hit .299/.356/.388 in 17 games before his season ended early with a wrist injury. I was extremely impressed that a high school player could hold his own in the advanced Florida State League so quickly, and gave him a Grade B+_ in my 2003 book, writing that he had "future star" written all over him.
Loney returned to Vero Beach in 2003 and hit .276/.337/.400 with 43 walks, 80 strikeouts, 31 doubles, but just seven homers in 125 games. The power production wasn't great, but he was just 19 years old and in a High-A pitcher's league. He was also bothered all season by a sore wrist, a remnant of the '02 injury that lingered all season and likely reduced his power output. Scouting reviews remained very positive, and I kept him rated as a B+ in the 2004 book, ranked as the Number 24 hitting prospect in baseball.
Promoted to Double-A Jacksonville in 2004, Loney's production dropped off sharply to .238/.314/.327. Another hand injury, this time a broken finger that got infected, caused pain all year and limited him to 104 games. He controlled the strike zone reasonably well and scouts still liked his swing and his glovework, and he was young for the level at age 20. I lowered his rating to a Grade B, writing that "injuries are a great excuse, but sometimes things like that become chronic problems and keep players from ever reaching their full potential."
A repeat engagement at Jacksonville in '05 resulted in a .284/.357/.419 line, with 31 doubles, 11 homers, 59 walks, and 87 strikeouts in 504 at-bats. He was fully healthy for the first time in his career, and while he showed more pop, scouts were now wondering if the power would ever truly develop given his line drive swing. In the 2006 book, I wrote "Loney continues to tantalize scouts like the girl who sat across from you in ninth grade math class." Age-relative-to-league remained his saving grace, but his stock was slipping among both scouts and statheads, and I lowered his rating to a Grade C+ in the '06 book, concerned that he could get buried if he didn't start showing more distance power with the bat.
Loney moved up to Triple-A Last Vegas in '06 and had a great year, hitting .380/.426/.546 with 33 doubles, 32 walks, and 34 strikeouts in 366 at-bats. A late promotion to Los Angeles resulted in a .284/.342/.559 line in 48 games, 102 at-bats; his SLG for the Dodgers that year was higher than it had ever been in the minors. Scouting reports were as positive as the numbers, though it was still uncertain how many homers he'd hit in a full season. I moved him back up to a Grade B+ in the '07 book, writing that "Projections for what Loney will become run the gamut from Mark Grade to John Olerud to Wally Joyner to Cecil Cooper."
2007 was another split season: .279/.345/.382 at Las Vegas in 58 games, but a stunning .331/.381/.538 in 96 games for the Dodgers, for an OPS+ of 134. He exceeded rookie qualifications and wasn't in the '08 book, but it sure looked like Loney had finally tapped into his power and was well on the way to becoming a star.
I did a Crystal Ball for Loney in February 2007 which assumed that his power would blossom.
However, things haven't turned out that way. He hit .289/.338/.434 in '08 (OPS+ 103), .281/.357/.399 in '09 (OPS+ 103), and .267/.329/.395 (OPS+ 99) in '10. His Fangraphs WAR readings aren't great: 0.7 in '08, 1.6 in '09, 1.1 in '10, 6.4 in 624 games in his career so far. His advanced defensive metrics were below average his first two years, but have been above average the last two. According to that anyway, as his hitting has slipped, his glove has gotten better, albeit not enough to make up for the decline in hitting. He has a pretty sharp platoon split, posting a .814 OPS against right-handers in his career but just .703 against lefties.
Loney turns 27 in May, so he is entering the peak window of his career according to classic analysis. That doesn't mean a power outburst will happen, of course; not everyone develops in the same way. Some players peak early. However, he's clearly not helped by playing regularly in Dodger Stadium: his career OPS at home is .711, on the road it is .856. His career SLG at home is just .377; on the road it is .494. His ISO at home is .109, on the road it is .187.
It looks to me like Loney's power is masked by his home park. Getting out of Dodger Stadium and into a more neutral environment would likely result in Loney "finding" his home run stroke. He'll never be a big masher, but in a different park I suspect he'd get to the 20-homer level and improve at least slightly in other categories.