James Loney: 2012 HR Champ?

March 16, 2012
 
James Loney, the steadily unspectacular first baseman for the Los Angeles Trolley Dodgers, has hit sixty-seven homeruns in 2736 career at-bats, a rate of one homer per forty at-bats.
 
This is not a league-leading rate. It has been a league-leading rate…way back in 1915. That was the year Braggo Roth paced the American League with seven round-trippers, a pace of one homer per fifty-five at-bats. But…the NL of 2012 is a long way away from the AL of 1915.
 
So what makes James Loney a (long-shot) candidate to lead the NL in homeruns?
 
Ted Kluszewski.
 
Or: Ted Kluszewski, Loney’s closest comparable player.
 
Kluszewski and Loney both reached the majors at twenty-two. Both were highly touted prospects, though they reached the majors through different channels. Kluszewski, a star tight-end for the University of Indiana, sort of lucked into the majors: a groundskeeper employed by the Reds witnessed Kluszewski hitting baseballs, and passed his name along to upper management. Like a few others of his era, Kluszewski was a football player who played baseball.
 
Loney, in contrast, was a baseball player through-and-through. In high school, he hit .509, and as a pitcher averaged nearly two strikeouts per inning pitched. He was a first-round selection in the draft (19th overall). At twenty-two, he hit .380 in AAA ball.
 
Both Kluszewski and Loney got a cup of coffee in the major leagues at twenty-two. Here are their statistics from ages 22-26, starting with the big Red:
 
Age
Name
G
R
2B
HR
RBI
BA
22
Klusz
9
1
0
0
2
.100
23
Klusz
113
49
23
12
57
.274
24
Klusz
136
63
26
8
68
.309
25
Klusz
134
76
37
25
111
.307
26
Klusz
154
74
35
13
77
.259
Totals
Klusz
546
263
121
58
315
.286
 
And Loney:
 
Age
Name
G
R
2B
HR
RBI
BA
22
Loney
48
20
6
4
18
.284
23
Loney
96
41
18
15
67
.331
24
Loney
161
60
35
13
98
.289
25
Loney
158
73
25
13
90
.281
26
Loney
161
67
41
10
88
.267
Totals
Loney
624
261
125
55
361
.288
 
Though their first five seasons, Kluszewski and Loney were very comparable hitters: they both posted good batting averages with modest power. Kluszewski's slugging percentage through Age-26 was .436…Loney’s mark was one point less: .435.
 
Both players had disappointing seasons at twenty-six. Loney’s .267 batting average and home run rate was the lower of his career, while Kluszewski’s batting average dropped to .259, after consecutive seasons above .300.
 
And both players rebounded at twenty-seven:
 
Name
G
R
2B
HR
RBI
BA
Klusz
135
62
24
16
86
.320
Loney
158
55
30
12
65
.288
 
Loney’s rebound season was last year…we’re up-to-date now. As you probably know, Loney had an extremely strong second-half last season. After hitting .167 in July, Loney posted batting averages of .367 and .348 in the last two months of 2012.
 
What you probably didn’t know is that Kluszewski had a similar improvement during the second-half of his Age-27 season.
 
Pre-All-Star Game:
 
Name
G
R
2B
HR
RBI
BA
OBP
SLG
Klusz
64
24
9
7
40
.297
.336
.456
Loney
91
23
12
4
31
.268
.311
.342
 
Post-All-Star Game:
 
Name
G
R
2B
HR
RBI
BA
OBP
SLG
Klusz
71
37
15
9
46
.342
.427
.560
Loney
67
33
18
8
34
.320
.380
.534
 
There are some differences in the two second-half upticks…Loney’s excellent August and September came on the heels of a terrible July. Loney also had a rough April, hitting .210 on the month. Kluszewski was more consistent: his batting average hovered around .300 most months.
 
But…Loney’s power jump is drastically better than Kluszewski’s. In Kluszewski’s time, the All-Star break happened a little before midseason, so his uptick in power is partially caused by playing time.
 
Today, the All-Star break happens much later in the season. So while the counting stats show that James Loney doubled his homerun output in the second half, the reality is that he more than tripled his rate. He went from homering once every 88 at-bats, to hitting it out of the yard once every 25 at-bats.
 
Which is probably a fluke.
 
But…Loney’s career has paralleled Ted Kluszewski’s career for all five years he’s been in the major leagues. And Ted Kluszewski had a big uptick in homeruns in 1953, when he was twenty-eight years old:
 
Name
G
R
2B
HR
RBI
BA
Klusz
149
97
25
40
108
.316
 
Kluszewski transformed himself from a good, solid hitter, to one of the best hitters in the game. And the transformation wasn’t a fluke: in 1954, the Cincinnati 1B led the NL in homeruns and RBI’s, and finished fifth in the race for the batting title.
 
Name
G
R
2B
HR
RBI
BA
Klusz
149
104
28
49
141
.326
Klusz
153
116
25
47
113
.314
 
Could James Loney follow suit?
 
It’s a long shot, but the peripheral stats don’t suggest any abnormal luck in Loney’s 2011 successes. His batting average on balls in play was .309, which is in line with his .311 career mark. His walk rate was slightly down, but not out of sync with his career numbers. His strikeout rate decreased. It wasn’t Kemp: Loney wasn’t seeing more fastballs because his teammate was having a monster season.
 
In other words: there’s no clear indication that Loney’s success last year was attributable to anything except his own improvement. As far as I can tell, he just got better.
 
I don’t know that he’ll continue to improve in 2011...but there’s at least one player who illustrates the upper strata of what an improving James Loney could be capable of.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and bicep-torn Reds jerseys here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 

COMMENTS (10 Comments, most recent shown first)

jdw
Some good comments here. I'd add that Don Mattingly has talked about *not* trying to get Looney to hit more HR's, and instead just go back to the BA+2B player he had been. In a sense indicating that they made a mistake last year by having Looney think too much about driving the ball, and it didn't work out.

Not saying Mattingly is correct on this, and I have no love for Looney as a 1B given his lack of 1B level offense. But when you're manager / default hitting coach isn't going to pressure to you hit them deep, don't expect those number to go up to NL Leading Level.
6:44 PM Mar 19th
 
stevebogus
Percentages of relatively rare events, such as HRs, can often be misleading. It is better to use the largest sample sizes available so that the percentages can stabilize.

When using single season totals I find that looking at the total HR difference home and away generally gives a better idea of how much a park rewards power.

As an example, let's look at Crosley Field 1948-1956:

1948 120 home 98 away +22
1949 104 home 106 away -2
1950 133 home 111 away +22
1951 90 home 117 away -27
1952 86 home 129 away -43
1953 185 home 160 away +25
1954 199 home 117 away +82
1955 201 home 149 away +52
1956 203 home 159 away +44

Note: There was no measurement in the RF power alley at Crosley while the inner fence was up. Without that fence it was 360 to the grandstand, 6 feet closer than at the foul pole since the grandstand angled in a bit. The "383" indicated at Seamheads is incorrect. According to Clem's ballpark diagrams that measurement was in left-centerfield, just to the right of the scoreboard. The true distance to the RF power alley had to be under 340 ft.

Crosley actually had the short RF fence installed beginning in 1942. I have not been able to confirm that it was there continuously (seasonal HR totals suggest that it may have been removed for a while and later reinstalled). But it is likely the inner fence was up in the late 1940s until mid-1950. 1951 and 1952 were probably the only full seasons in which that fence was gone during Klu's career as a Red.

10:25 PM Mar 18th
 
shinsplint
Chuck, that's interesting about the uptick in home run rates in 1950 and 1953. I assume, however, that a livelier ball (or whatever the cause) would help all hitters increase their home run rate roughly equally.

Here's Kluszewski's home run total as a percent of the league leader. I'm only including the years Kluz had at least 550 PA--from 1949 to 1956.

1949 15%
1950 53%
1951 31%
1952 43%
1953 85%
1954 100%
1955 92%
1956 81%

So Kluszewski somehow had a larger increase in homers relative to others in 1950 and especially in 1953 to 1956. I'm not sure why. Certainly pulling in the fences helped, but that seems to be an insufficient explanation for such a large increase. Yes, from 1953 to 1957 he hit 60% of his homers at home. But from 1949 to 1951 he hit 59% of his homers at home. 1952 was the anomoly--he hit only 25% of his homers at home.

You brought up his doubles and triples relative to his homers. I would guess that if someone was hitting a high number of doubles and triples, perhaps they would turn into homers with a livelier ball. From 1948 to 1952, 61% of Kluszewski's extra-base hits were doubles, 8% were triples, and 31% were homers. Is that a high number of doubles and triples? Not really. In the NL from 1948 to 1952 58% of extra base hits were doubles and 12% were triples. So Kluszewski's rate of doubles and triples is almost exactly the league average.

From this information, I don't really see a reason why Kluszewski would increase his home run rate starting in 1953 unless 1) he just matured into a home run hitter in that year as many do in their mid to late 20s or 2) with the livelier ball he adjusted his swing to take advantage of it and hit more homers.
10:36 AM Mar 17th
 
chuck
A couple reasons why I don’t see Loney replicating the Kluszewski jump in HR’s...
In 1953 there was a large, league-wide jump in the home run rate. The HR rate per batted ball in these years for NL non-pitchers:

1947: 2.47%
1948: 2.38%
1949: 2.59%
1950: 3.11%
At this point there was a lot of talk about the increase in home runs and whether the baseball had been changed. Kluszewski hit 25 homers this season, with a HR rate per batted ball of 5%.
1951: 2.85%
1952: 2.60%
1953: 3.37%
The rate in 1953 was not out of line with that of 1950, but was also a substantial jump (30% over that of 1952 or a 24% increase over the average of 1951-52.

There were a couple changes in parks in ’53, but not ones which would account for an increase of that size, if any at all. The Braves started playing in Milwaukee, and their power alleys and center field substantially INcreased in distance. Pertinent to Kluszewski, the Reds shortened their right field fence from 366’ to 342’. 342 feet was still one of the longer RF distances in the NL, but it was 24 feet shorter, and I would guess that Klu was a strong pull hitter.
The Reds had this 342’ distance in 1948 through June 30th of 1950, then went out to 366’ for some reason. But oddly, Kluszewski’s HR rate per batted ball in Crosley in 1950 remained at 5.1% regardless of any change to the fence.

In 1953 his rate at home jumped up to 8.6%, and on the road to 6.3%.
I think the league’s hitters’ increase of 30% in this season, and the possibility a livelier ball was in play, may explain more of Klu’s dramatic change than the Reds bringing in the right field fence, which also likely helped. From 1953 through 1957 Kluszewski hit 102 homers at home to 69 on the road.
Not saying Kluszewski didn't do any improving on his own; just that the big increase league-wide in '53 can't be ignored.

From 1947 through 1952 Kluszewski was in the 6-1-3 family of hitters (2b-3b-HR). Thereafter he suddenly was in the 4-0-6 family. Loney has also up to now been in the 6-1-3 family, but showed no change in this in last year’s 2nd half (18 db, 1 tr, 8 hr)
6:50 PM Mar 16th
 
stevebogus
In 1953 Crosley Field's rightfield line was shortened from 366 ft to 342 ft. Although Kluszewski probably did have a real improvement at about this time, the new fence gave him an easier target to shoot at and his HR totals at home increased by quite a bit.

Check out the ballparks database at seamheads.com



3:09 PM Mar 16th
 
rwarn17588
Even if Loney gets a power surge, I can't see him ever lead the league in home runs as long as he plays half his games at Dodger Stadium.
12:04 PM Mar 16th
 
those
Trailblzr, that was very funny. Thanks for the laugh :)
11:11 AM Mar 16th
 
tigerlily
Nice counter-intuitive argument, Dave. That said, I'd put the over/under on Loney's 2012 HR total at 12. However, your article got me wondering what HR champs have been the biggest surprises. The only one I can think of is Jose Bautista 2010.
10:34 AM Mar 16th
 
Trailbzr
Do you still think Nick Markakis is on track to the Triple Crown?

www.billjamesonline.com/article1571/?pg=7

8:28 AM Mar 16th
 
slideric
thanks for your work. shall watch Loney closely.
8:20 AM Mar 16th
 
 
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