MSTI’s 2010 in Review: First Base

Catcher’s in the books; let’s move on to first base. Fair warning, this gets way more negative than I’d intended. Sorry, James.

James Loney (D-)
.267/.329/.395 .723 10hr 1.1 WAR

Back in March, I made a bold proclamation. I said that James Loney was in line for a huge step forward in 2010, and I said that for three reasons. #1, he was just 25 and had already established himself as a league-average hitter, if still in the lower half of first basemen. #2, his improved plate control in 2009 (70/68 K/BB) was outstanding and is often the harbinger of improved production. And #3, he’d ended 2009 on a great hot streak, putting up an OPS of .846 from August 25 on. I didn’t think he was going to be the next Albert Pujols or anything, but all the signs were there for the great leap forward we’d all been waiting for. What could go wrong?

As we all know, Loney repaid that faith with the worst year of his career. Of course he did.

Really, Loney regressed in just about every way. His strikeout rate of 16.2% was the highest of his career, and his walk rate decreased nearly 3% from last year, helping his OBP plummet nearly 30 points from 2009. Even his homers were the lowest in his four full seasons, and considering he was already dangerously low in the power department, that’s a troubling sign.

All kidding aside, however, the power bar is set so high at 1B that Loney’s lack of power is getting to historically-low levels for the position. Over the last 30 years (1980-2010), there have been 205 seasons in which a 1B got as many PA as Loney (648), with at least 75% of those appearances coming while the player was a first baseman. Only 14 times out of 205 did the player have 10 or fewer homers:

Rk Player HR PA Year Age Tm G AB H 2B RBI BB BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Daric Barton 10 686 2010 24 OAK 159 556 152 33 57 110 .273 .393 .405 .798
2 James Loney 10 648 2010 26 LAD 161 588 157 41 88 52 .267 .329 .395 .723
3 Keith Hernandez 10 682 1985 31 NYM 158 593 183 34 91 77 .309 .384 .430 .814
4 Mark Grace 9 689 1992 28 CHC 158 603 185 37 79 72 .307 .380 .430 .809
5 Mark Grace 9 662 1990 26 CHC 157 589 182 32 82 59 .309 .372 .413 .785
6 Willie Upshaw 9 661 1986 29 TOR 155 573 144 28 60 78 .251 .341 .368 .709
7 Mark Grace 8 703 1991 27 CHC 160 619 169 28 58 70 .273 .346 .373 .719
8 Steve Garvey 8 653 1984 35 SDP 161 617 175 27 86 24 .284 .307 .373 .680
9 Al Oliver 8 664 1983 36 MON 157 614 184 38 84 44 .300 .347 .410 .757
10 Darin Erstad 7 663 2005 31 LAA 153 609 166 33 66 47 .273 .325 .371 .696
11 Keith Hernandez 7 694 1982 28 STL 160 579 173 33 94 100 .299 .397 .413 .810
12 Mike Hargrove 4 705 1982 32 CLE 160 591 160 26 65 101 .271 .377 .338 .715
13 Pete Rose 3 718 1982 41 PHI 162 634 172 25 54 66 .271 .345 .338 .683
14 Pete Rose 1 735 1980 39 PHI 162 655 185 42 64 66 .282 .352 .354 .706
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/18/2010.

Looking at that list, you can see that many of the other power-starved 1B offered value in other ways. Barton, Hernandez, Grace, and Hargrove all had OBP north of .372. Garvey’s 1984 power outage was an aberration after ten years in a row of double-digit homers (and two more in 1985 and 1986); it was similar for Oliver, who’d had 13 years of 10+ homers and had hit 22 the year before. Pete Rose had an acceptable OBP and offered the value of “being Pete Rose“, and almost all of the names I’ve mentioned were outstanding glovesmen.

I’m trying not to get too doom-and-gloom, but the point here is that while many others on this list offered value either in that season or in the several seasons prior to somewhat absolve their powerless sins, Loney’s OBP was the third-worst of this group, ahead of only Garvey’s off-year and the Angels’ inexplicable obsession with Darin Erstad. It’s not exactly a list you want to be at the head of.

Unfortunately for Loney, this offseason represents the first real threat to his job. In the previous two years, you could look at the expected power from the Manny/Kemp/Ethier outfield, along with decent production from Casey Blake, and rationalize subpar output at 1B in hopes of seeing that potential pay off. You could say, “he could break out at any moment, and he’s barely making more than the minimum.”

But now? Now that Loney’s seemingly gone backwards, now that the the offense as a whole failed miserably this year, and now that he’s likely to get $4-$5m in arbitration? Now that he hit .211/.285/.331 in 73 games after the All-Star Break? Now that the only 1B he outproduced (by OPS+, min. 400 PA) were the untested Matt LaPorta, the broken-down Todd Helton, and the execrable Casey Kotchman, putting him 21st of 24th this year?

He’s 21st in WAR among 1B with more than 400 PA as well, which is the lowest 1/3 for the position, and again, while that may be fine when he’s making $800k, it’s not nearly as good when he’s making $4-5m. This is a position that features Pujols. Prince Fielder. Ryan Howard. Joey Votto. Miguel Cabrera. Adrian Gonzalez. Mark Teixeira. Kevin Youkilis. Adam Dunn. Paul Konerko. With so many other question marks on the offense and on the payroll, how can the Dodgers stand pat with one of the lesser lights in baseball at the position?

I like James Loney, and I think he’ll figure it out someday. I’m just no longer convinced it’s going to happen in Dodger blue, and his career mark of .854 OPS on the road against just .711 at Dodger Stadium bears that out. He won’t get non-tendered, nor should he; but I’d absolutely put him at the top of my “to-trade” list.

John Lindsey (inc.)
.083/.154/.083 0hr -0.2 WAR

In the catcher review, I mentioned that Rod Barajas joining his hometown team and getting off to a hot start set off a slew of feel-good stories. Take that and multiply it by about a billion for Lindsey, who practically had Ramona Shelburne as his personal biographer for a few weeks there.

Let’s not forget, though, that what really made this story completely unbelievable was not that Lindsey finally got the call after 16 years in the minors, but the ridiculousness that happened when he actually arrived. Like when he tried to get his first at-bat, and, well, you all remember…

Who’d have thought that after 16 years in the minors, three inches from the plate still wouldn’t be close enough?

I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it myself. After 16 seasons in the minors, John Lindsey was finally going to get his shot. He heard his name over the PA, strode to the plate to pinch-hit with men on and one out… and after a Padres pitching change, Joe Torre did the unthinkable and called him back to the dugout, so Andre Ethier could hit into the most predictable double play in the world.

He finally got his chance, but barely, because nearly two weeks later it was…

In the three weeks or so since being everyone’s feel-good story, John Lindsey has started just one game, and even then he made it only to the 7th inning before being pulled. He’s had just nine opportunities to hit. Meanwhile, Russ Mitchell started out 0-15 and has just 2 hits in 24 plate appearances (both homers, granted) and has received six starts, and even Trent Oeltjen has managed to pick up two starts despite a crowded outfield. Yet Lindsey’s barely gotten a chance.

Five days later, Lindsey took a pitch off his hand, breaking it and ending his season. He’d managed one hit in his 13 times up. Lindsey promises he’ll be back next season, though of course the Dodgers have no obligations towards him. Crushing lefties as he does, you could think of worse platoon partners for Loney, though I’m afraid to say I think we just might have seen the last of Mr. Lindsey. Of course, we should all know better than to count him out at this point.

******

Next! Ryan Theriot‘s unbelievable uselessness! Farewell, Blake DeWitt! Ronnie Belliard gets fired! And holy crap, Nick Green? It’s second base!

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