In a Dodger infield which has been absolutely destroyed by injuries to Mark Ellis, Juan Uribe, & Jerry Hairston in addition to the general ineffectiveness of Dee Gordon on both sides of the ball, James Loney has been a constant. Sure, that usually means he’s constantly infuriating, given that he’s once again off to a lousy offensive start that leaves his OPS on the wrong side of .700, but he’s at least been there, and on a team which currently does not have a single 40-man infielder available who isn’t already up or injured, that’s at least something.
For all the grief we give him, Loney has actually been on something of a hot streak of late, hitting .381/.447/.500 in 12 games since May 8 in addition to his usual stellar defense. It’s something of a sabermetric truism that hot streaks don’t really exist, given small sample size issues and varying levels of quality, yet some non-A.J. Ellis credit must be handed out as the Dodger offense continues to get by in the absence of Matt Kemp and the others, and Loney is a big part of that.
He’s still not great, of course, having massively disappointed once again by failing to bring his outstanding end to 2011 into 2012. In February, I attempted to look on the bright side regarding Loney by suggesting that in a National League which was suddenly without Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, & Ryan Howard, along with a litany of question marks elsewhere, he might actually not be a below-average first baseman. So far, it hasn’t worked out that well at the plate, because of the 15 NL first basemen with at least 100 plate appearances, his .297 wOBA still only places him tenth. (Of the five guys behind him, John Mayberry barely counts because he’s seen more time in the outfield than at first this year, and Gaby Sanchez has been so bad the Marlins just shipped him back to Triple-A.)
Yet when you include defense that is factored into the admittedly-imperfect WAR, Loney is at least middle-of-the-pack, which is all you can ask for of him. At the least, and I’m pretty sure I said this last year too, his defense and recent production among the ruins of the rest of the infield elevates him to “not the biggest Dodger problem,” and that’s not a title he’s always been able to enjoy. If anything, Loney merely needs a platoon partner rather than being replaced entirely, as he’s once again been pretty good against righty pitching (.824 OPS this year, .814 career) while being completely useless against fellow southpaws (.400 OPS this year in limited time, .663 career).
Of course, as the Dodgers head into Arizona for a three game set that features lefties Patrick Corbin & Joe Saunders ahead of a Thursday off-day, we may not be seeing a ton of Loney this week. If Don Mattingly continues to use him properly, playing Jerry Sands or Scott Van Slyke at first against all lefty pitching until (and preferably after) Juan Rivera returns, then Loney’s production against righties and solid defense just might not make him the anchor we generally perceive him to be.
It’s hard to imagine that James Loney isn’t in his final year with the club, at which point he’ll likely end his career sixth all-time in terms of games played for a Dodger first baseman. But for now, at least, he’s able to provide enough small value that he can help the team win. For a team scrambling even to find enough warm bodies to fill out the infield, that just might be good enough.