Back in the day, when the Rays regularly surpassed 90 wins and contended for the playoffs, they excelled in many smaller facets of the game. Their hitters would take free passes and post high on-base percentages; their fielders would use top-notch range to turn most balls in play into outs; and their catchers would net the pitching staff a solid amount of extra strikes. The former area mattered most of all, because of what the club would do once its players had reached. From their incredible 2008 World Series run to their (arguably) more incredible 2011 trip to the playoffs, the Rays led the major leagues in FanGraphs' baserunning runs, or BsR.
Starting in 2012 (when the Rays missed the postseason) that changed. Their baserunning remained mediocre from that year until 2014, such that the club placed 17th in the majors with -1.9 runs on the basepaths. In 2015, Tampa sunk even further, finishing a full 15.9 runs below average — a mark that only topped the Mariners and Tigers. Although a few different players contributed to that decline, one truly distinguished himself with his horrid play: James Loney.
The Rays signed Loney to a one-year contract after 2012. He rewarded them with the type of season that they prioritize, putting up a .348 OBP and saving 6.1 runs with his glove (per UZR). While the warning signs came forward, in the form of a -2.3 BsR, Tampa gave him a three-year extension in the following offseason. That deal quickly went south, as his OBP and UZR fell to a respective .336 and -1.5; simultaneously, his baserunning plummeted further, to 5.8 runs below average.
Then came 2015. In an all-around miserable season, Loney only reached base safely in 32.2 percent of his 388 plate appearances, while costing the Rays 2.4 runs in the field. Most egregiously, he regressed in terms of baserunning — to the tune of a -9.6 BsR.
In and of itself, a mark that low isn't especially uncommon. To pick one hilarious example, Billy Butler has hit double-digits three times, including 2015. But when adjusted for playing time, it really does stick out. Since 2002, when FanGraphs began broader data collection on baserunning, these are the worst seasons by BsR/600:
Out of 3,826 campaigns with at least 300 trips to the dish, Loney's 2015 comes in a hair behind Pudge's 2010. Let's dive a little deeper into this to see where Loney really struggled.
FanGraphs breaks down baserunning into three components: wSB (which accounts for stolen bases), wGDP (which accounts for double plays), and UBR (which accounts for everything else). Of Loney's 9.6 runs lost, 1.4 came from an inability to swipe a bag, while 0.5 came from the opponent turning two. The remaining 7.7 runs? Those disappeared because of Loney's shortcomings with the basics of baserunning.
Suppose a hitter finds himself on second base at the same time that the person batting hits a single. Three things can happen from there — the hitter on second can:
- move up to third;
- run into an out trying to score; or
The best baserunners in baseball will regularly accomplish the latter, flying home to beat even the strongest of throws. Those without blazing speed can either play it safe and stay put, or push ahead and risk it all.
Thanks to the wonderland of Baseball-Reference, we can see which players embody each of these philosophies. In 2015, Evan Gattis accrued an extra-base-taken rate (XBT%*) of 30 percent, notably below the 39 percent major-league average. However, he only created five outs while trying to move ahead. By contrast, Melky Cabrera moved up 44 percent of the time, allowing the opposing team to gun him down on 11 occasions. UBR graded each of them at 2.5 runs below average, so their respective strategies matched up overall.
*This includes three scenarios: runners moving from first to third on a single, runners scoring from second on a single, and runners scoring from first on a double.
With Loney in 2015, we saw the worst of both worlds. Given 44 chances to snag another bag, he did so a mere seven times — leaving him with a 16 percent strand rate. Even worse, he managed to become an out seven different times, an inexcusable total for someone with as many plate appearances. As you might suspect, this combination doesn't come around very often. In the new millennium, 4,383 batter seasons have had 300 opportunities; of those, 146 have had an XBT% below 20 percent; and of those, just four have averaged ten outs made on the bases per 600 plate appearances:
If your offense puts you in the conversation with Henry Blanco, you've probably done pretty poorly. That certainly applied to Loney's 2015.
Can Loney bounce back next year? The strained oblique he sustained in spring training may have hampered him throughout 2015; moving past that would certainly help him improve. Before that, he had missed a total of six career games due to injury, so he should have a better shot at recovering. With that said, he turned 31 in May, and older players tend to lose their speed. Even a clean bill of health can't fight Father Time.
In the end, I'd expect a smaller rebound, simply because very few players can consistently perform this terribly on a consistent basis. Regression to the mean usually counteracts underperformance of this magnitude. But Loney will likely remain one of the worst baserunners in the game, on account of his advancing age. Should his hitting and fielding remain unsatisfactory, he'll probably hit the free-agent market before his contract expires at the end of 2016.
After two straight years without October baseball in Tampa, the Rays presumably want to return to contention. Many of their core players, like Loney, had injury-affected seasons; with a healthy Desmond Jennings, Drew Smyly, and Matt Moore (among others), this team can certainly go far. If Loney can't return to his past glory, they might have to look elsewhere for their first baseman.
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