I could talk about another punchless Dodger loss, or how the team left the bases loaded three times – including in each of the first two innings against emergency starter Dillon Gee – or that Don Mattingly basically punted the game by putting two guys with sub-.300 OBPs (Aaron Miles & James Loney) at the top of the lineup, or that the bullpen faltered once again, or how Andre Ethier‘s hitting streak ended, but there’s only so much you can say about all that. This was a game we’ve seen so many times before, where a decent-or-better starting pitching performance was wasted by atrocious offense that is not becoming of a major league team.
So let’s ignore the game and focus on just how unintimidating Loney has been on this, his 27th birthday, more than five years since his major league debut. This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about this, nor do I mean to pick on him specifically. It’s just that even though he got two hits tonight, making for six over his last four games, and was actually hitting .343 in the eleven games leading up to tonight, his lack of power is bordering on the historic. I’m not even talking about the lack of homers, which we’ve been lamenting for years. I’m talking about the lack of extra-base hits, because seemingly a huge majority of the hits he has managed lately have been lucky or well-placed singles through the infield.
It turns out, it’s not just my perception. Loney’s 2011 is on pace to be the weakest of any first baseman in the last 60 years:
The list you’re seeing there is of all non-pitchers since the 1947 integration who have had as many plate appearances as Loney did entering tonight, sorted by fewest extra-base hits. Loney had two hits in five plate appearances tonight that aren’t reflected here, but they were each singles, so it doesn’t really change the results.
What’s really enlightening here is to look at the position column, all the way to the right. Almost all of these hitless wonders were middle infielders from decades ago, at a position and time where a lack of power was accepted, with a few catchers thrown in for good measure. Worse, this is a list comprised almost entirely of players who never really had careers to speak of. You haven’t heard of Dwain Anderson, Elio Chacon, or Larry Lintz, right? The only one here who is notable in any way is Al Lopez, a fine catcher who made the Hall of Fame via the Veterans Committee, but whose entry on this list was the final season of his 19-year career, at age 38.
It gets worse. I didn’t include the full list above, but it actually goes out to 55 names, as there are dozens of others tied with Loney at two extra-base hits. You might think that by stretching it out that far, you’d end up with at least a few other first basemen. You’d be wrong. It’s almost entirely comprised of catchers, second basemen and shortstops, with the odd center fielder (like 39-year-old Brett Butler’s 1993, or 22-year-old Juan Pierre‘s 2000). In fact, the only other player on the list who even played a single inning at first base was Mike Fiore in 1970, split between the Red Sox and Royals. Fiore played his final MLB game at 27 two years later, which is exactly the age Loney turned today.
Let’s not stop there, though. We all know that this isn’t just six weeks of underwhelming production, but that he’s coming off a tough second half of 2010, too. From the start of last year’s second half on July 15 through the start of play today, Loney had 405 plate appearances and a line of .213/.274/.305, an OPS of .579. Using the same timeframe of 1947-present, here’s the list of seasons of at least 405 plate appearances by players who saw at least half of their time at first base, sorted by lowest OPS.
Loney’s not listed there because his streak is over two seasons, but you’ll see that he’d slot nicely into the second-lowest OPS of the last 64 years by a first baseman. If I’d waited until baseball-reference had refreshed with tonight’s results, Loney would be first on this because the threshold would have been higher than 405 PA, and Kranepool wouldn’t appear. It’s sort of splitting hairs at that point, anyway.
Now, I get that the Dodgers don’t have a ton of other great options. I get that the numbers haven’t really been there from Jerry Sands, though I do think he’s looked better than the stats show. But this is a lack of production that hasn’t been seen from first base in decades, and it’s on the heels of several mediocre seasons, at least from the point of view of those who understand that RBI are useless. How much longer can the Dodgers really go without rectifying the situation? I’m not sure if that means recalling Trayvon Robinson to play left field with Sands at first, letting Tony Gwynn play left every day, giving Jamie Hoffmann or Trent Oeltjen a shot at left, or letting Sands and Jay Gibbons platoon at first, perhaps with a touch of Casey Blake when he’s healthy. None of the solutions are perfect. They can’t be. But they also simply can’t be worse than what we’re witnessing, and with a team that’s seeing its entire season be endangered by atrocious offense, something must be done. Something drastic, perhaps, because no team should have to have a first baseman this underpowered. Maybe they could let him use metal bats, like in college? Perhaps one of these BBCOR baseball bats would give him the boost he’s sorely lacking.
Happy birthday, James. I’m sorry it hasn’t worked out, I really am; but your present needs to be an all-expenses paid trip to one of the 59 beautiful MLB and AAA destinations that aren’t Dodger Stadium.