Does James Loney Deserve Being Platooned?

HOUSTON,TX: James Loney #7 of the Los Angeles Dodgers reacts after fouling the ball off his foot during a baseball game against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

So anyway, James Loney has been the Dodgers' first baseman since 2007. Oddly, 2007 is also the last time that James Loney was really much good. This spring, really for the first time ever, Loney's been sitting on the bench against left-handed starting pitchers. As you might guess, it's not sitting real well with him.

From Dylan Hernandez (via the L.A. Times):

"I want to play every day," Loney said.

In the eight games the Dodgers have faced a left-handed starter, Loney has been out of the lineup five times.

Manager Don Mattingly said Loney's latest benching had less to do with Loney's troubles hitting left-handers and more to do with wanting to play Jerry Hairston Jr. Juan Rivera played first base, and Hairston took Rivera's regular spot in left field.

Loney won't be sitting against left-handers for long, according to Mattingly.

"Now, he's getting sharper and sharper," Mattingly said. "He's getting to the point where we're going to see him more against lefties than less."

The math here is really simple.

James Loney is a pretty good major-league hitter. Roughly five full seasons into his career, he's piled up a fair number of plate appearances, enough that we have a pretty good read on his true ability. Like I said, he's pretty good. Not so good, though, for a first baseman. Since 1998, 20 first baseman have at least 2,000 plate appearances. James Loney's 103 OPS+ ranks 19th out of 20.

Does 19th out of 20th mean James Loney shouldn't be in the major leagues at all? No. Does it mean he shouldn't be playing? No. There are lots of first basemen who weren't good enough to rack up 2,000 plate appearances. James Loney is, I don't know, one of the 25 or 30 best first basemen on Earth. Or 35, for sure.

Not against left-handed pitching, though. Loney's got exactly 800 plate appearances against lefties, and done this:

.251/.308/.367

Here's what all major-league shortstops did last year:

.263/.317/.380

In 800 plate appearances, Loney's been a below-average shortstop against left-handed pitchers.

He might actually be a little better than that. While 800 plate appearances seems like a lot, it's really not. Given another 800 plate appearances against lefties, he'll probably fare somewhat better. Just not better enough. Loney's overall numbers tell us a great deal about his ability against pitchers, generally. And mostly what they tell us is that he's good enough for the major leagues, but is most useful in a platoon role.

Assuming, of course, that a platoon partner's at hand. In these halcyon days of seven- and eight-man bullpens, platoon partners are uncommon beasts.

Don Mattingly's been semi-platooning Loney because he wants to get Jerry Hairston into the lineup. Jerry Hairston's 36, and these are his career numbers against lefties:

.260/.327/.381

To get Hairston into the lineup, Mattingly's been shifting Juan Rivera to first base.

Is the small difference between Hairston's hitting and Loney's hitting worth the difference between Loney's fielding and Rivera's fielding?

Roughly speaking, it's a wash. Loney really shouldn't be playing against left-handed pitchers, but Mattingly's limited roster options mean it doesn't really matter if Loney plays against left-handed pitchers. Not until Jerry Sands, currently struggling in the Pacific Coast League, establishes himself as a viable option.

***


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