ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — You can put James Loney in that J.D. Drew category.
You want to shake him because you know there’s more than meets the eye. He has talent, very good defensive skills, and a sweet swing. When he was coming up through the Dodgers system, a few people in the organization thought he would win a batting title.
Couple those smooth physical traits with a really quiet personality and when the production didn’t always match up to what was expected, people weren’t happy.
But the Rays’ Loney, facing off now against his former team, the Red Sox, leads the majors with a .381 average. He also had three homers and 20 RBIs with 15 extra-base hits.
Loney spent about six weeks with the Sox last season after he came over from the Dodgers in the deal for Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford.
He didn’t do much offensively with the Sox. In 100 at-bats he hit two homers and knocked in eight runs for a .574 OPS, not exactly what you’re looking for from your first baseman. So the Sox didn’t re-sign Loney, who didn’t take long to find a new home in Tampa Bay with Joe Maddon’s Rays for one year at $2 million after making $6.4 million last season.
Loney has come as advertised defensively, but his offense has taken the league by storm. The lefthanded batter was never that great vs. lefthanded pitchers, but he entered Tuesday night hitting .500 against them this season.
The Sox have noticed that one change Loney made is that he’s not always pulling the ball. He now hits with more authority to the gaps. At a big and strong 6 feet 3 inches, Loney has never hit more than 15 homers in a season, and that was as a 23-year-old rookie with the Dodgers.
He never really lived up to expectations when he came up with Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, but Loney is only 29 and now appears to be reaching his prime as a hitter.
“It’s been really good,” Maddon said of his No. 5 hitter. “I read different things and heard different things. What do I think of James Loney? I love his calm. I love the way he approaches the game. A lot has been highly misconstrued about this young man. I think that’s why he is good. One of the calmest defenders I’ve ever seen and one of the best I’ve had at first base.”
“Probably the best thrower I’ve had as a coach or manager,” continued Maddon. “I’m talking about minors and major leagues. Wally Joyner was similar. They had the ability to throw the ball calmly and quickly.
“Offensively the difference is, don’t ask him to hit homers and he’ll hit them. Don’t ask him to do something better. It’s there. I think the more you talk about it the less likely chance it’ll happen if you push it on him. Let him play. This guy is a really good baseball player and he’s got a really good mind.”
Loney is so calm that sometimes you wonder if there’s a pulse. After a bad at-bat there’s little reaction, and after a big hit there’s very little emotion.
“There’s a real nice fire burning within and I’ve seen it,” Maddon said. “He’s demonstrated it in different moments where I’ve been really impressed.
“He’s a totally misconstrued individual from a distance. I think he really fits this team. I don’t know if he can sustain .380, but he’s going to hit for a really good average for most of the season.”
Maddon said Loney “had a Rays bull’s-eye on his back” from the moment he became a free agent. Tampa Bay knew he would be low cost and fit within its budget restraints.
“I didn’t know what to expect in free agency,” said Loney, who totaled .249 with six homers and 41 RBIs last season. “I just wanted to go someplace where I’d get a chance to play every day and this was the team that gave me that opportunity.”
He’s used to big crowds in LA and Boston, but he’s getting half the amount of people in Tampa Bay.
In some ways that’s good for a quiet guy like Loney, but he said, “I loved the atmosphere in Boston. By the time I got there, it was pretty quiet from everything that had happened there. I loved the big crowds, the ballpark, everything about it. I’m definitely glad I can say I played for the Red Sox and played at Fenway Park. It was a great experience even though we didn’t do that well.”
And he says he has no complaints about the smaller crowds at The Trop because, “the people who do show up get really loud and are really into the game. I think it’s great. I know the fan base isn’t as big as Boston or LA, but the people who come appreciate baseball.”
As he struggled to hear with a four-piece Latin band, Sol Caribe, playing loudly near his locker, Loney was asked about playing for Maddon. “It’s different,” he said with a smile, “but it’s great. It’s a very comfortable atmosphere and he gets the most out of you. You love playing for a guy like that.”
Loney acknowledged that this is the best start he’s ever had and that he may not be able to sustain it over time, but he said he’s not really thinking about that right now.
The ball looks big coming to the plate. His bat is fast. He seems like a different hitter, a different guy.
He never liked the attention on him, and now people are watching, wondering why this hitting machine never has been in gear before.
“I feel confident at the plate when I step into the batter’s box,” Loney said. “It’s hard to explain why or what’s happened.
“I’m just in one of those grooves at the plate I hope doesn’t end any time soon. I feel I can go up there right now and get a base hit.
“I’m not fighting myself. My mind is clear and I’m just concentrating and able to focus on hitting the baseball.”Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.