MSTI’s 2011 in Review: First Base

Man, I barely know where to start with this one…

James Loney (Grade: ¿ or ¡ maybe? Or æ. Ooh, let’s go with þ.)
.288/.339/.416 .755 12hr 1.1 WAR

When I first started putting these 1991 Topps cards together, it was early August, and Loney’s was one of the first ones I did. The original photo was of him with his head down, walking slowly back to the dugout after yet another failed at-bat. He looked sad, which is exactly how he made us feel.

You’ll notice that this image of sadness is no longer included in his card. Now, the picture is of him focusing on another hapless pitcher, helplessly attempting to figure out what he can do to fool the Unstoppable Force That Is James Loney. If you think that sounds weird now, just imagine what the July version of you would have said.

Other than Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, I’m pretty sure that there was no player discussed on this site in 2011 more than Loney, simply because he was so damn confounding. Since he’s the only first baseman we’re talking about today, we’re going to take a nice leisurely ride through the good, bad, and downright bizarre of Loney’s season. No, really, be warned: I wrote a lot about Loney this season.

Hell, the season hadn’t even started when I first really bagged on him back on March 24:

(*Regarding Loney, I’d like to note here that I’m in an NL-only draft with several of my Baseball Prospectus cohorts, in a league which requires full 40-man rosters. As you can imagine, the pickings in the lower rounds of this draft are beyond slim. We’re in the 35th round, so over 400 players are off the board. Loney remains available.)

At the time, that seemed in no way unreasonable, and things didn’t look any better on April 14, when I noted that he was “sucking in a fashion not generally seen outside of the darkest corners of the internet,” and by April 20 he was getting entire posts dedicated to how awful he was, not only here, but at Baseball Prospectus, where I pointed out that his home/road and lefty/right splits were so severe, his only hope of success might be as a platoon player outside of Dodger Stadium.

That was followed up by “James Loney’s Total Eclipse of the Bat” on May 7:

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.

James Loney, at that point, was historically awful, and as the season slipped away, most of us wondered how long it was worthwhile to stick with him, particularly as he went nearly six weeks without an extra-base hit. Here’s the thing, though: I feel like a lot of people are under the misconception that Loney was garbage for over four months and then suddenly turned it on in August. That’s not exactly true; while he didn’t become James Loney, Superhero, until late summer, there were already signs in May that he was starting to pick it up:

As I joked on Twitter, James Loney is slowly moving into “not our biggest problem” territory, after reaching base three times today. That doesn’t mean that he’s suddenly become all that good or that I’ve changed my overall opinion on him, but he has doubled in three straight games and hit in 8 of 9 & 15 of 18, raising his line from an unbelievably bad .167/.191/.211 on April 23 to a more realistically poor line of .240/.283/.292 after today. With the rest of the injury and production issues mounting, and Loney still contributing his usual solid defense, he’s no longer the biggest concern.

And again, on May 30:

James Loney hadn’t thrilled the home crowd with a homer since August 31, 2010, when he took Philadelphia’s Kyle Kendrick deep. He’s now done it twice in four days, tonight leading the Dodgers with three hits as they battered Colorado’s Jason Hammel and the reeling Rockies on their way to a 7-1 win. Loney’s certainly playing like a man who wants to keep his job, and a .295/.354/.420 in May is certainly a good start. It’ll take more than that to overcome everything else, but it’s a step in the right direction, and for all the heat he’s taken here and elsewhere over the last year, it’s fantastic to see any bit of a spark from him.

…and again, on June 23:

Since that four-hit game on April 26, Loney has turned his season around, hitting  .331/.388/.432 in 188 plate appearances, good for an .820 OPS with a nice 14/16 K/BB ratio. That OPS still isn’t great – it’d put him at 13th among qualified 1B if he’d had it for the full season - but it’s immensely better than his “among the worst in history” start to the season.

To even be able to say that Loney has value with a straight face, after months of wondering when he’d be benched, is a testament to just how good he’s been lately.

All of which was reflected in his midseason grade in early July:

James Loney (C-) (.268/.311/.342 4hr -0.5 WAR)

I feel weird giving Loney a C-, because his line and a grade in that range suggest that he was his normal mediocre self all season. Far from it; by early May, he was the most hated man in LA since OJ and we were all writing articles about how bad his season was going to be on a historical level. Since then, he’s basically been the best non-Kemp hitter on the team. That doesn’t mean he’s good – hooray, a .751 OPS from a 1B since April 26! – and again, that says a lot about the rest of the players on this team, but nothing tells you more about the plight of the 2011 Dodgers than the fact that their punchless overpaid first baseman is no longer even close to being the biggest issue here.

So to say that Loney finally started showing some life in August isn’t exactly true, as he’d been on a slow incline all season. This would all make for a nice and tight narrative… if not for July. Holy good lord, July:

Split G PA H 2B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
April/March 28 112 22 1 1 5 16 .210 .241 .248 .489
May 28 100 27 5 2 7 5 .293 .350 .413 .763
June 25 97 30 3 1 7 12 .337 .381 .404 .786
July 25 81 13 4 0 5 10 .176 .225 .230 .455
August 27 90 29 6 5 10 12 .367 .433 .633 1.066
Sept/Oct 25 102 32 11 3 8 12 .348 .400 .587 .987
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original TableGenerated 10/1/2011.

July was so bad that it was even worse than his April, and April was putrid. It was so bad that on August 3, all three Dodger beat writers wrote about how bad things were, as he’d been dropped into something of a platoon with Juan Rivera at first base. For my part, my patience had run out:

The total there is good enough for the 10th-worst OPS in MLB, and other than the inexplicable collapse of Adam Dunn, every single one of the guys performing worse than Loney are up the middle players, either 2B, SS, or CF. We could cite any number of stats pointing out his ineptitude – among players with as many PA as Loney has, he’s the 6th worst player by TAv – but in this case it’s not really necessary, because the eye test is clearly good enough.

Getting pinch-hit for in the late innings of a close game or not, it’s clear that Loney’s tenure as a Dodger is coming to an end. To his credit, his quotes in the above stories reflect a player who understands that he hasn’t been performing, and I’d also praise Mattingly for not slavishly continuing to play him every day when the production isn’t there. Loney’s an all-but-guaranteed non-tender following the season, though it should be noted there’s no obvious replacement for him in 2012, either.

And that was the end, it seemed, of James Loney, member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. But beginning with the ridiculous 24-hour span in which he threw a bullpen session in case he was needed to help support an overworked bullpen and then went 4-4 with a homer and a double the next day, Loney became a new man. That was August 21, and it all started happening from there.

August 27:

But back to Loney. I’ve been making jokes about his performance against the Rockies for some time now, chalking most of it up to the Coors Field effect. Clearly, that doesn’t hold water anymore; the last two have come at home. He’s now hit just two homers in the last 362 days that didn’t come against Colorado. The Dodgers finish off the series against the Rockies with Nathan Eovaldi against Jhoulys Chacin tomorrow, before welcoming San Diego into town. Has Loney really turned some kind of corner? Or will he turn back into a pumpkin as soon as Jim Tracy and crew leave town? More importantly, is this going to convince Ned Colletti to tender him a contract after the season? I still think it’s unlikely at the price he’d get in arbitration, but the last week or two has thrown some doubt into the conversation…

August 30:

As hot as Loney as been lately – and make no mistake, he’s been excellent – it’s also been eight games and 35 at-bats. In his previous 37 at-bats, leading back to the beginning of the month, he’d hit .243/.341/.351 with two extra-base hits. In all of July, he hit .176/.225/.230 with four extra-base hits, all doubles. So as much as I’m enjoying the new and improved James Loney, this level of production is going to need to last for at least another week or two (if not the rest of the season) before I’m able to chalk it up to anything more than a very welcome hot streak.

That’s what brings me back to perception. Streaks happen in baseball. Anyone can have one, in either direction. Just as Loney is absolutely not as good as he’s been over the last week, he’s also not really as bad as he showed in April when we were all calling for his head. It won’t take too much more for this hot streak to basically counteract his frigid start; as Jon Weisman rightly mentioned at Dodger Thoughts, since Loney’s low point on April 24, he’s essentially been standard-issue Loney, with an OPS similar to his career marks.

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The point is, absent further information or the unlikely probability that Loney hits like this through the end of the season, he’s probably going to be the same James Loney that he’s always been. He’ll end up with 10-12 homers and a line somewhere in the neighborhood of .280/.335/.395, just like every year.  He was never as bad as we poked fun at him for being early in the season when he struggled to get the average above .200, nor is he as good as he’s seemed in the last week. He’s still going to be a likely non-tender following the season, simply because the Dodgers can’t afford to pay ~$6m to a non-star first baseman (though it’s possible they still attempt to bring him back after that for a lesser price.)

The thing is… he kept it up. If his September wasn’t quite as good as his August, it was still excellent with a .987 OPS. The longer his tear went on, the clearer it became that he was going to be sticking around.

September 18:

Back to Loney, with only nine games left, I’ve begun to change my tune. No, I don’t necessarily think he’s “for real”, and there’s still a very good argument to be made that he should be non-tendered, but I think we’ve reached the point where the conversation is mostly going to be for the sake of argument: whether any of us like it or not, he’s going to get tendered a contract for 2012.

That holds true today – I strongly believe Loney gets tendered. And maybe, just maybe, that’s not as bad of an idea as we think it is. If you’re not getting Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder – which, spoiler alert, you’re not – the remaining first base alternatives aren’t all that enticing, particularly if Jerry Sands is filling an outfield spot. If, somehow, he’s figured it out, then one year at ~$6m isn’t that terrible. If he hasn’t? Well, with Dee Gordon and his erratic arm at shortstop, you’re going to need a first baseman who can pick it. Still not necessarily saying I’d do it, but I can understand the reasons why the Dodgers might. Without question, the Loney choice is going to be the highest risk / highest reward issue of the winter.

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Next! Aaron Miles grits his way to glory! Ivan DeJesus disappoints! Juan Castro can’t be killed! And oh holy good lord, Eugenio Velez! It’s second base!