Through the first two months of the 2013 season, James Loney has consistently shown that he can be a more than viable option in the middle of the order for the Rays. Thus far his .325/.387/.479 slash line to go along with 4 homeruns, 23 runs and 24 RBIs has been more than impressive for a man who last year often appeared as if he would never be able to right his troubles at the plate. For reference, here's his career stats, via Baseball Reference.
So where did this sudden turn-around come from? Steroids? Nay, although it's depressing that the minds of many instantly jump to that conclusion in this day and age. The answer to James's sudden out burst of offense is quite simple, really. He's just hitting the ball harder.
In 2012, Loney had a line-drive percentage of 24.7%, which was about on par with the rest of his career. But in 2013, Loney has increased that percentage to an astonishing 30.3%. Only two other hitters in baseball hit line drives more than 30% of the time; Joey Votto (31.3%) and Jay Bruce (31%), both of the Reds. Loney has also increased his HR/FB (homers to fly ball ratio) from 5.3% in 2012 to 8.5% in his first 182 PA this season. So although this ratio is still less than impressive (116 out of 172 qualified hitters), it still shows that when Loney hits the ball in the air he's hitting it farther more often than before.
Another stat that some may point to is Loney's increased BABIP in 2013. In 2012, his BABIP stood at .269 to go along with his .249 average. In 2013 however, his BABIP has increased to .348. Many people consider BABIP to be a "luck" statistic, and would conclude that Loney has not truly improved himself as a hitter, but instead is getting luckier. However, when looking at BABIP it is crucial to look at the whole picture. His increased line-drive percentage and decreased ground-ball percentage (45.8% down to 37.2%) would suggest that Loney has created his own luck, so to speak. He's hitting the ball harder, and it's falling for hits more often. Let's give the man some credit.
One thing that has always enthralled me about Loney is that he breaks the typical mold of the power-hitting first basemen who relies heavily on the long-ball to do offensive damage. Instead we have a guy who leads Tampa in average and OBP, but ranks 5th in homers. Loney is unlike the typical first basemen in that he is selective at the plate. His 10.4% strikeout rate is the lowest among all first basemen, and his BB/K of .89 is second only to the MLB's OBP leader Joey Votto (.96).
Overall, I think the laid-back Loney deserves to be given some credit for his impressive stats in the early part of 2013. Whatever changes he made during the off-season have certainly worked for him, so kudos to you Mr. Loney.
Here's James Loney, reacting like James Loney while Clayton Kershaw sings Taylor Swift.