One of my favorite television moments from when I was a teenager was when Norm MacDonald returned to host Saturday Night Live in late 1999, less than two years after he’d been fired from the show. Norm dedicated his monologue to trying to figure out how he’d managed to go from unemployed to headlining the show in such a short period of time, finally coming to this pointed realization:
So I wondered, how did I go in a year and half from being not funny enough to be even allowed in the building, to being so funny that I’m now hosting the show? How did I suddenly get so goddamn funny? It was inexplicable to me, because, a year and a half, let’s face it, is not enough time for a dude to learn how to be funny! Then it occurred to me… I haven’t gotten funnier. The show… has gotten really bad! So, yeah, I’m funny compared to, you know, well, you’ll see later. Okay, so let’s recap. The bad news is: I’m still not funny. The good news is: the show blows!
I’m an admitted Norm fanboy, so I’ve had that speech bouncing around my head (particularly the “bad news, good news” line) for years. I bring it up today because I started thinking about what to expect from James Loney this year – trust me, there’s a connection that will make sense in a second – and that’s exactly the line I started thinking about.
You see, the National League in 2012 has all of a sudden found itself in a severe drought when it comes to non-Joey Votto options at first base, traditionally one of the most productive offensive players in the lineup if you’re doing it right. (Which means that other than one good year from Nomar Garciaparra in 2006, the Dodgers haven’t been “doing it right” since… what, a few good years from Eric Karros in the 90s? Steve Garvey before that?) Albert Pujols is off from St. Louis to Anaheim, and Prince Fielder joined him in the American League with Detroit. The other notable masher at the position, Ryan Howard, is probably going to miss several months recovering from his Achilles injury – even before that he wasn’t as valuable as most believe anyway – and it’s anyone’s guess as to what his NL East colleagues in Ike Davis and Adam LaRoche can do after missing most of 2011 with serious injuries. A league that once had Pujols, Fielder, Howard, Adrian Gonzalez, and Adam Dunn & Derrek Lee when they were still productive now has only Votto and a whole lot of question marks.
This is a league where if the season began today, the collection of starting first basemen might very well include Bryan LaHair, Mat Gamel, Ty Wigginton (or Jim Thome!), Jesus Guzman, Aubrey Huff, Carlos Lee, and Garrett Jones. (“I’ll take ‘guys who aren’t Lyle Overbay‘ for $200, Alex.”) I know that won’t be precisely the list – hey, maybe Brandon Belt or Yonder Alonso can beat out the incumbents this time around – but it’s not far off, and it’s hardly intimidating. Even the teams with first basemen coming off productive years have to worry about advancing age – I’m on your lawn, Todd Helton & Lance Berkman – or sophomore slumps from solid-but-hardly-elite youngsters like Freddie Freeman & Paul Goldschmidt.
Look at it this way: the average line from all NL first basemen last season was .270/.350/.450 (.801), narrowly beating out right field for the top offensive position in the league. Now take out 692 plate appearances of .981 performance from Fielder and replace them with Gamel, who is just a year younger but has still managed just a .684 OPS in parts of four seasons with the Brewers as he’s been unable to prove he’s more than a Quad-A player. Take out Pujols and replace him with Berkman, who actually outperformed Pujols last season as Albert dealt with a wrist injury but who few expect to repeat his 2011 at age 36. (Bill James predicts him at .894 next year, slightly less than what Pujols was able to do.) Take out some portion of Howard’s .835 as he recovers, and the 606 plate appearances of .819 that Carlos Pena left behind in Chicago. Take out the excellent .336/.401/.601 in 354 plate appearances that Mike Morse had as a first baseman in Washington as he moves to left field, numbers which LaRoche can’t match, and depreciate some of the .850 over 491 plate appearances that absolutely no one expects the soon-to-be 39-year-old Helton to repeat. (I’ll acknowledge that if healthy, Davis should improve the Mets’ 2011 performance at the position.)
Taking all that into consideration, it’s not all that hard to think that the OPS production by NL first basemen in 2011 (and I shouldn’t have to note that I know OPS isn’t the best metric, but for a high-level look like this, it’s fine) is going to sink south of .800, a number that it barely topped last year with Pujols and Fielder. If everything really goes wrong – if Helton and Berkman really fall apart, or if Davis can’t make it back from injury, or if the Giants refuse to get over Huff, or if the new Marlins park is as pitcher-friendly as we’ve heard and that impacts Gaby Sanchez, etc. – it could be considerably lower than that.
And then there’s Loney, looking up at the group with his .288/.339/.416 (.755) line from 2011. He’s been the definition of mediocrity in his four years as a starter, with the only change being that in 2011 he decided being decent-but-no-better for the entire season was boring, and that it’d be far more fun to be gawd-awful for two months and then be red-hot for two months, with his final line coming in at basically the exact same place it always had. The problem was never that Loney was a terrible player (other than the first six weeks of 2011, of course), because there’s value in a slick defensive player who can hit 10-12 homers and bat in the .280s, but that the bar at first base was set so high that by comparison he looked terrible.
Now, it seems, the bar might not be quite so high to be a decent first baseman in the National League, without even considering that Loney owns one of the better gloves in the circuit. If he repeats his 2011 exactly, his total package could make him average or just-below as far as NL first basemen go. If he’s anything like he was over the last two months of 2011, he’s one of the three best in the league. (And of course, if he’s anything like he was in April and May, he’s on the street by June.)
Is James Loney really any better than he’s been before? Unless you really, really believe in the way he ended 2011, probably not, and believe me, I’m not thrilled about the fact he’s making $6.375m this year. But when you compare him to, well, you’ll see, maybe it’s not so bad. So, to recap… the bad news is, Loney likely isn’t suddenly a top first baseman. The good news is, well, just about no one else has one either.