GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There are two schools of thought when it comes to Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman James Loney: one school that asks why doesn't he hit more home runs, and another school that asks why can't the Dodgers just let him be who he is.
Loney is hoping this is the year when he can bring the two camps together.
"The thing is, I'm still with this team, so they obviously think there is more I can do, even though what I have done has been pretty good through the years," Loney said. "I want to get better. The key to making your game better is driving the ball. My job isn't necessarily to hit more homers. People who know baseball say hitting home runs is really all about getting bat speed and catching the ball in just the right spot."
And it is precisely that -- not getting the ball to leave the yard, but getting Loney's bat into the relatively small hitting zone more quickly -- that Loney and Dodgers hitting coach Jeff Pentland have been working on not only since the start of spring training, but basically since the end of last season. Loney flew to Phoenix from his home in Houston twice this winter for extra work with Pentland at the team's Camelback Ranch facility.
"In order to hit the ball in that certain area, it's really difficult," Pentland said. "James probably isn't as consistent as he needs to be at getting his bat to that spot. What he needs to do is put the bat head in a better position so we can add some sharpness to the ball. I never tell guys to swing for the fence. I want guys to hit the ball hard consistently. If they do that, there are going to be times where they catch it just right and it's going to go out of the ballpark."
Loney has always had strong hand-eye coordination, and he admits that has allowed him to adjust mid-swing and make contact at times even when his mechanics haven't been completely sound. But after working and talking so much with Pentland, he is feeling a comfort level he has never felt before.
"It's a totally new feeling," Loney said. "I think I might have had it a few times [in the past] without knowing it. But this is more of a new feeling. It's just [a result of] trying to do things the right way and trying to take that perfect practice approach so that eventually, you make that muscle memory take over."
For all the talk of his lack of home runs, it isn't like Loney hasn't been productive in his career. His post All-Star break nosedive last year notwithstanding, he has driven in 278 runs over his three full seasons in the majors, and he still has a lifetime average of .288.
"I know everybody talks about James' power, but he has been right around 90 RBI every year," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "Last year, he was on pace to drive in 115-120. He had 63 at the break, and it just went bad. Nobody would even be talking about home runs if he had driven in 115 runs. ... I think this guy has it in him, I really do.
"I know some people keep telling me we're messing with him, but his hand-eye coordination is very good, and he has the talent. But we're not going to tell him to try to hit more home runs. If he can keep doing what he was doing at the break last year, we'll be happy with that."
With split-squad Cactus League openers awaiting the Dodgers on Saturday afternoon, Mattingly said he, bench coach Trey Hillman and third-base coach Tim Wallach will go to Scottsdale, where the Dodgers will face the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. The regular starting infield of Loney, second baseman Juan Uribe, third baseman Casey Blake and shortstop Rafael Furcal also are expected to make that trip.
"I just want to keep the three of us together so we can get into a rhythm with signs and everything," Mattingly said.
Triple-A Albuquerque manager Lorenzo Bundy will manage the other half of the team, which will play the Los Angeles Angels in Tempe. The starting outfield of Matt Kemp in center, Andre Ethier in right and, presumably, Tony Gwynn Jr. in left will play in that game.
Hiroki Kuroda and non-roster invitee Tim Redding are the starting pitchers, but Mattingly wasn't sure which game each will go to. Starters generally pitch two innings in their first Cactus League appearances of the spring.
Rain and chilly weather are in the forecast for both Saturday and Sunday, when the Dodgers are slated to play the Angels again in their Camelback Ranch opener.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.