If the Red Sox have been one of the most disappointing teams in baseball this year, then waiver trade import James Loney has been one of its most disappointing and frustrating players. The 28-year-old first baseman entered his contract year with high hopes. He tallied 2.4 WAR last year in the best season of his career, and while his numbers weren’t all that impressive when placed in the context of first basemen and not the overall league, Loney had shown signs of improving on both sides of the ball.
His production has completely cratered this season, and with free agency on the horizon it’s becoming tough to tell who will have interest in, and who will guarantee millions of dollars over at least a couple of seasons to, a light-hitting first baseman playing at the replacement level.
Loney has become the posterchild for both incorporating the appropriate context into statistical evaluations and understanding the true value of the alliterative small sample size seasonal splits. The once-touted prospect simply hasn’t delivered at the major league level, and his confounding floundering this season has set him up for a very interested free agent case study. Loney simply isn’t a good major league player relative to his position and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for teams to justify giving him a shot as anything other than a one-year stopgap if even a mediocre prospect is waiting in the wings.
First basemen typically hit better than most other positions, so the bar is stacked higher for Loney’s production to begin with. Since 2009, the offensive environment has suffered, and the average first base wOBA has dropped from .355 to .343 to .337 to its current .329 mark. Over the same four years, Loney has posted respective wOBAs of .332, .315, .329 and .270. He has fallen below average in each of the last four years and, aside from last season — his .329 was somewhat close to the .337 1B average — he wasn’t even close.
His wRC+ numbers pegged his offensive production above the league average in two of those four seasons, but that’s comparing Loney to the entire league. Relative to his first base brethren, his cumulative 96 wRC+ in that span ranks towards the bottom among qualified first basemen. There are only 43 players that qualify on our leaderboards here and Loney’s 96 wRC+ ranks 7th-worst, ahead of just Casey Kotchman, Matt LaPorta, Jorge Cantu, Chris Davis, Ty Wigginton and Justin Smoak. Four of those guys either aren’t in the majors or don’t deserve to be and Davis, whose power has helped the Orioles this season, is a completely different player.
The closest comparative here is Kotchman, who is also a former top prospect who has become a poor hitter but a well-reputed fielder. Loney has outproduced Kotchman over the last four seasons, but it’s more likely than not that he will follow a similar career mold, signing a slew of one-year deals, maybe some that include options, but never truly settling down anywhere as a legitimate solution. There is certainly some inherent value to that stopgap role, as it is still a role in the major leagues, but it’s a disappointing fate for a player once so highly regarded.
One of the main issues is that his home/road splits, which used to be his calling card for those in his corner, haven’t mattered for three years. Prior to 2010, Loney was a guy that hit poorly at home, but turned it on away from Dodgers Stadium. In 2009, he had an awful .282 wOBA at home, and a terrific .376 wOBA on the road. The story was similar, albeit less drastic, the year before: he had a .320 wOBA at home and a .346 wOBA on the road. In his first full season in 2007, he had a .334 wOBA at home and a .450 wOBA on the road. Those are seeming significant splits when cobbled together, however those three years of road splits roughly equal one full season of data, and that isn’t enough to definitively know something about a player.
It became common for Loney defenders to anchor to those numbers and push out the narrative that, if he played elsewhere, his numbers stood to improve. Road splits from 2007-09 tended to support that theory, but the problem arose when the same theory was used after his home/road split ceased to matter. In 2010, Loney had a H/R wOBA split of .311/.320. Last season, it was .328/.330. This year, including his time in the supposedly friendlier confines of Fenway Park, the split is .267/.273.
He went from someone who just couldn’t hit at Dodgers Stadium to someone who just can’t hit.
Entering what figures to be the final year of his prime, Loney is lost at the plate, and has performed worse with Boston (.260 wOBA, 54 wRC+) than with Los Angeles (.273 wOBA, 71 wRC+). From a positive standpoint, he stays healthy and has legitimately improved into a top-notch fielder. He could perform well in that Kotchman role, where expectations are tempered coming in. He could even thrive in that backup, defensive replacement Doug Mientkiewicz role. But it seems far-fetched to suggest that he merits a multi-year deal and a guaranteed starting role. At a certain point, potential and promise are trumped by tangible performance, and Loney has reached that point.