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Rays Season Preview: James Loney

Tampa Bay's astonishingly consistent first baseman looks to regain his defensive form in 2015

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

2014: 155 games, 27 doubles, 9 home runs,  .290/.336/.380, 109 wRC+,  0.9 fWAR

2015 PECOTA Projections: 597 plate appearances, 9 home runs, .269/.322/.373, 0.2 WARP

2015 ZiPS Projections: 152 games, 26 doubles, 9 home runs, .275/.322/.373, 101 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR

If history and preseason projections are any indication, the Tampa Bay Rays know what to expect in 2015 from James Loney: 35-40 extra-base hits, .700 OPS, and a 100-110 wRC+. Put simply, the Rays can expect slightly above league average production.

However, thanks to his back-loaded contract Loney will be the Rays second-highest paid player this season, accounting for just under 12% of the team's total payroll, while projecting to be worth a single win. The three year, $21 million contract Loney signed prior to the 2014 season is structured so that Loney is paid more than $8.6 million this year.

While the ten year veteran, with his career-high 15 home runs in 2007, has never hit for power, league average production makes him among the least productive first baseman in baseball. Of the 24 qualified first baseman in 2014, Loney placed in the bottom third in several key offensive categories, including most major power categories:


Total

Rank

fWAR

0.9

18th

wRC+

109

16th

Walk Percentage

6.3%

22nd

Slugging Percentage

.380

20th

ISO

.090

24th

Fly-Ball Percentage

31.0%

21st

Home Run to Fly Ball Ratio

5.5%

23rd

While his extra-base hits have declined steadily, Loney's line-drive percentage and fly-ball percentage have remained at or above his career levels. In fact, Loney's 26.6% line-drive percentage in 2014 was the second highest total of his career. Perhaps not coincidentally, his 138 singles were by far the most of any first baseman, 25 more than Miguel Cabrera.

Worth monitoring in 2015 is the frequency with which Loney sees curve balls. Aside from 2012 and his .367 BABIP, Loney has had trouble with the curve throughout his career:


% of Pitches Seen

BAA

SLG

BABIP

2008

10.6%

.226

.415

.263

2009

10.5%

.191

.270

.229

2010

10.2%

.170

.277

.180

2011

7.9%

.255

.314

.302

2012

10.0%

.306

.444

.367

2013

10.9%

.200

.283

.250

2014

11.5%

.192

.277

.258

Loney sees curve balls only the fifth most often of any pitch in his career, as was the case last season; however, he has seen curves with increased frequency every season since 2011, and it is reasonable to believe that trend will continue in 2015 until he proves he effectively handle breaking pitches.

The Rays are built to win on pitching and defense, which is why Loney's spreadsheet-defensive struggles last season are a concern. Using the numbers we have, Fangraphs ranked Loney as the league's third worst defensive first baseman in 2014, after ranking him the game''s best from 2012-2013. Loney still made routine plays with ease, but "likely" and "unlikely" plays were less successful.

Given Loney's track record and relatively young age (he turns 31 in May), it is reasonable to expect him to return to form defensively in 2015, spreadsheet be damned. The man has a glove, and he's going to use it.