Reporting from Phoenix -- Reminded that he was once considered a potential batting champion, James Loney nodded and smiled.
“I still think I can do that,” he said.
As crazy as that might sound from a player who rallied mightily to finish with a .288 batting average last season, Loney isn’t the only one making such bold pronouncements.
“I think something like that is there for James,” Manager Don Mattingly said of a batting crown.
Loney has played four full seasons in the major leagues and hasn’t hit better than .289 in any of them. His career average is .288. He had only 65 runs batted in last year, prompting the Dodgers to make a run at fellow first baseman Prince Fielder during the off-season.
Had Loney not turned into Babe Ruth over the final month of last season, the Dodgers might have forfeited their rights and allowed him to enter the free-agent market a year early without receiving anything in return.
Nonetheless, Loney seems convinced he is on the verge of a major breakthrough. He watched Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier turn themselves into All-Stars in recent years and believes he is next.
“I do,” Loney said. “You have this feeling deep down inside.”
Loney, 27, said he finally understands who he is as a hitter.
“Over the last two years I’ve tinkered too much, maybe, and changed too many things,” he said. “Any time you do that, it may take a little while to get back to where you were. Those are sometimes the growing pains you have to go through.”
When he broke into the majors, he was arguably the best prospect among a group of young Dodgers that included Kemp and Ethier.
Loney drove in nine runs in a 2006 game in Colorado to tie a franchise record. The next year, he batted .331 with 15 home runs and 67 RBIs in 96 games as a rookie.
But as Kemp and Ethier became All-Stars, Loney regressed slightly.
His numbers the next three seasons:
2008: .289 average, 13 home runs, 90 RBIs.
2009: .281, 13 home runs, 90 RBIs.
2010: .267, 10 home runs, 88 RBIs.
Everyone from General Manager Ned Colletti to then-manager Joe Torre defended Loney’s performance on the basis of the RBI totals.
But Loney was dissatisfied.
He looked at his batting averages and thought they should have been higher than .300. He looked at his RBI totals and wondered why he wasn’t driving in 110 or 120 runs.
“Those are my expectations,” Loney said. “People might be like, ‘You had a good year,’ but I always expect more out of myself. I expect to be better.”
He said his tendency to overthink worsened, resulting in a terrible start last season.
Through Aug. 20, he was batting .254 with five home runs and 37 RBIs in 93 games.
Dave Hansen, who took over as hitting coach when Jeff Pentland was fired in mid-July, said Loney was listening to too many voices. Hansen became Loney’s sixth hitting coach in five years.
“It’s a tough thing to separate everything you hear, to figure out what’s good for you, what works for you, what doesn’t,” Hansen said. “All the while, you’re still trying to be respectful to the coach that’s in front of you. James is a pro, so he was taking a lot more information than he could probably retain.”
Loney’s personality only complicated the problem. “He’s a sweetheart of a guy and he’s not going to disrespect anybody,” Hansen said.
Under Hansen, Loney worked to simplify his swing and approach, worrying less about his mechanics and concentrating more on timing. Loney continued to watch videos of opposing pitchers but stopped analyzing his own at-bats.
“It’s more of a feel thing,” he said.
The result: In his last 35 games, Loney batted .388 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs.
“It’s part of the process,” said Mattingly, a .307 career hitter with the New York Yankees who won a batting title in 1984 when he hit .343 and was American League MVP in 1985. “Some guys catch it really quick, some guys catch it in spurts, and some guys it takes a little bit.”
By the time the Dodgers visited Arizona at the end of the season, Loney was telling Mattingly he felt he could teach other players how to hit.
Loney has carried that approach into this spring. He was one for two with an RBI in the Dodgers’ exhibition opener, a 6-4 victory over the Chicago White Sox on Monday.
The hope is that his consistent approach will translate into a consistent swing.
“James’ hand-eye is unbelievable,” Mattingly said. “He puts the bat on the ball. There are times you think, ‘This thing’s a wreck,’ everything’s out of sorts, but he still has that great hand-eye coordination. As his body comes together, you’re getting to that point where everything’s starting to match up. If he puts it all together, there’s a chance for something special to come out of there.”
Mattingly pointed to how Loney drove in 63 runs before the 2010 All-Star break, only to tail off in the second half of the season.
“I always just double that,” Mattingly said. “If he can do it for a half a season, there’s no reason to think he can’t do that for a full season.”