2012 Dodgers in Review #4: 1B James Loney

(w/ LA) .254/.302/.344 359pa 6hr 0.0 fWAR F

2012 in brief: Yet another disappointing season was mercifully cut short in August when he was traded to Boston in the Adrian Gonzalez deal.

2013 status: Free agent, and thank whatever deity you believe in that he’s someone else’s problem now.

******

You know, prior to the season I joked that photobombing the Eastbound & Down premiere party would be the best thing that James Loney & Javy Guerra would do all year. Seven months later, I’m finding it pretty hard to argue that this didn’t end up being accurate.

You might argue that Loney doesn’t deserve an F, simply because “having a terrible season” isn’t exactly surprising by Loney standards. But he gets one anyway, if only because he teased us with his red-hot finish to 2011 and made us spend all winter wondering once more if he could really be a productive player. He was not. We’re suckers for ever having thought otherwise.

Besides, it’s not like we were hoping for that much, given that using the word “productive” was only in comparison to the underwhelming rest of the NL first base crew, anyway. Once the last-minute attempt to lure Prince Fielder failed, we had to perform some serious mental gymnastics to try to talk ourselves into the idea that Loney might possibly sorta hopefully not be as terrible as we feared:

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.

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.

Loney repaid that hope by hitting just .232/.312/.362 in April and .264/.333/.356 in May. He hit one homer in each month and then none until hitting two in August. While that’s atrocious enough on its own, to have a first baseman hit only four homers in five months, all of them came on the road. That, along with the two he hit with Boston, meant – and I cannot overstate this enough – that it’s now been more than a full calendar year since Loney hit a homer at home, dating back to September 17, 2011, against the Pirates. How is that even possible? It’s not; at least, it shouldn’t be.

By the middle of May, the best we could say about him was merely that “he’s not the biggest problem,” which is basically the definition of “damning with faint praise”; a month later, we were openly looking at potential trade partners to upgrade the position. At that point, though Don Mattingly preferred not to publicly state it, Loney entered into a stone-cold platoon with Juan Rivera. Loney started against C.J. Wilson and the Angels on June 13th… and then never again started against a lefty in the more than two months he remained on the team before being traded. Never. Once.

Even though Rivera was just as terrible, keeping Loney away from lefties made sense from Mattingly’s perspective. But it didn’t help, not really, since Loney still hit just .289/.299/.386 over July & August even with the boost of facing nearly exclusively righty pitching. As you can imagine, with the team hanging around the playoff hunt, we were not nearly satisfied with this. Yet with no move at the trade deadline for a Justin Morneau or someone like him, the alternative seemed obvious: Jerry Sands, who had turned around his terrible start to begin destroying the PCL again.

Sands was recalled on August 6 when Tony Gwynn was DFA’d, and we were all hopeful that he was coming to get a chance to take over first base from the disappointing duo. He didn’t, getting just one start before being sent back, and by August 17, with Loney struggling to keep his OBP above .300, I was writing at FanGraphs about how badly things had gone:

It’s really, really difficult to overstate just how bad the first base situation is in Los Angeles right now. Of the possibly dozens of different ways to describe how awful James Loney & Juan Rivera are, my favorite might be “Juan Uribe still exists, and even despite that third base isn’t the biggest problem on this club.” Loney (.252/.300/.328 & .265 wOBA entering Thursday) and Rivera (.243/.280/.355 & .271 wOBA) have combined to start 112 of the first 118 games at first base this year, and all the Dodgers have received for that time investment is a combined .268 wOBA, just a tick above Seattle for the worst in baseball. (If we go by WAR, which factors in Rivera’s below-average defense, they are dead last.) I’m not sure what’s more surprising – that Loney has just three homers this year, or that he hasn’t had an unintentional walk since June 23.

Yet with the Dodgers unwilling to give Sands a fair chance, for reasons I still don’t quite understand, it seemed we’d be stuck with this mess for the rest of the year and then spend half the offseason praying that Colletti would finally move in a different direction. Of course, a week later, the shocking Boston trade dropped… and just like that, he was gone. (And don’t think I let that tiny fact pass in my initial, overwhelmingly shocked, look at the trade, saying “The end of James Loney! I don’t want that to get lost here. He’s gone!” and that “obviously losing Loney is addition by subtraction”.

So what’s Loney’s legacy in Los Angeles? One of disappointment, obviously, because the talent he flashed in 2006 & 2007 and then again at the end of 2011 was never something he could keep up. One of controversy, I suppose, since we seemingly never heard the end of “but he’s a run producer” arguments from those who were enamored by his back-to-back 90 RBI seasons.

For me, I’m not sure there’s any more fitting legacy that when Loney finally left Los Angeles, he went to Boston and was immediately worse, hitting .230/.264/.310 in 30 games there. I know, I know; 106 plate appearances isn’t much of a sample size. It doesn’t matter.  It’s an appropriate end to yet another disappointing season of a disappointing career. So long, James. Don’t come back.

******

Next up! I still can’t quit believe this team ended up with Adrian Gonzalez!

Who Needs Kershaw When You’ve Got Herrera, Loney, & De Jesus? Dodgers Win, 7-6

At some point, you have to figure, the magic is going to run out. There’s not going to be a new hero. There’s not going to be a miraculous comeback.

Maybe so. Not tonight.

If there was a game for the Dodgers to go quietly into that good night, an evening where Clayton Kershaw was far from his best against up-and-coming Chicago star Chris Sale seemed like as good a time as any. By the time the reigning Cy Young left after six innings, he’d allowed five runs (four earned) on eight hits, including two homers; he left down 5-1, since the Dodgers had generated little after Elian Herrera‘s first-inning RBI double. If it wasn’t quite hopeless, the air had certainly left the stadium.

Then Jerry Hairston walked to lead off the bottom of the sixth, one of three free passes for him on the night. From there, seemingly out of nowhere, the hits came fast and furious. Bang – an A.J. Ellis single. Boom – a Juan Uribe double scoring two. After Tony Gwynn struck out, Ivan De Jesus (remember him?) hit for Kershaw and drove in Ellis with a single, causing us to wonder once again why he never gets to play. Then came potentially the most mystifying moment of the rally, and I’m not talking about the fact that Dee Gordon‘s attempt to sacrifice bunt ended up being a 3-4 popout, as it tipped off of Paul Konerko‘s glove into Gordon Beckham‘s bare hand – I’m talking about the fact that an ill-timed sacrifice bunt which didn’t work actually didn’t kill a rally. Jesse Crain entered and immediately allowed a tying two-run double to Herrera, followed by Juan Rivera‘s go-ahead hit. All told, the sixth inning saw five runs, five hits, and a walk. Who says there’s not magic in this team?

Yet it wasn’t over yet, because Ronald Belisario, working his second inning of relief, allowed a tying homer to Alex Rios in the eighth. (Obligatory rant: of the four Dodger relievers, Belisario was the only one who even allowed a hit, much less a run. He’ll get the win, though, because herpa derp herp.)

But hey, what’s one run when you’ve already come back from down four? And if you’re going to do that, why do it in any sort of expected fashion? James Loney, who had entered for defensive purposes earlier, singled with one out in the bottom of the eighth off tough lefty Matt Thornton. (!) After Gordon walked for the second time (!!), Herrera grounded into a fielder’s choice, pushing Loney to third. Bobby Abreu came up, but he wasn’t needed; Thornton’s wild pitch allowed Loney to run home (!!!) to tie the go-ahead run. Kenley Jansen finished up with a clean ninth.

There’s going to be games where the late magic doesn’t come. There has to be. Not tonight, though. Not tonight.

Looking Ahead to the Inevitable Upgrade on James Loney

You can contort yourself into a pretzel trying to talk yourself into James Loney, and believe me, I’ve tried. “He’s a great defender! He’s not so bad against righty pitchers! Much of the NL doesn’t have anything great at first base either! He’s hitting .500 over his last ten at-bats!” …and so on. Yet despite suggestions that he may be “turning it around”, his OPS on the morning of June 15 stands at .690. It was .690 on April 22, and it was .689 on May 19. He may be doing it in more of a “kinda bad, then kinda better” fashion than just straight consistently mediocre, but the end result is still the same: of the 27 first basemen in baseball who have played enough to qualified for the batting title, his .289 wOBA ranks 25th, ahead of only one-year wonder Casey Kotchman and whatever the hell Valley Fever & a busted ankle did to Ike Davis.

Considering this is coming on the back of approximately four years of similar mediocrity save for his inexplicable end to 2011, it should come as no surprise that the rumor mill is starting to fire up:

Everyone’s asking about everyone at this time of year, with the trading deadline already beginning to sneak up on us, so this falls under the usual category of “news that’s not really news in any sort of way.” Still, it’s not hard to see the Dodgers looking at first base as their biggest problem area, given that if Juan Uribe crashes and burns again at third, Jerry Hairston & Elian Herrera can team up to step in as needed. Juan Rivera is hardly a viable alternative at first, and no one thinks that Scott Van Slyke or Jerry Sands are ready to return to take the bulk of the work.

So if improvement is coming, short of the ghost of Lou Gehrig returning to wear a Loney skin suit like he did late last year, it’s coming from outside the organization. Who are we looking at? Unfortunately, between the second wild card keeping more teams in the race and a few guys who aren’t obvious improvements, the pickings could be slim. We’ll see my potential preferred choice, Paul Konerko, come to town with the White Sox this weekend, but barring an enormous collapse the first-place Sox aren’t likely to be selling.

That leaves us with a few possibilities…

Bryan LaHair, Cubs
The dreadful Cubs are clearly going to sell anything they can to get talent back into the system, and have top first base prospect Anthony Rizzo mashing in Triple-A and ready to go. With the reported interest the Dodgers have in pitcher Ryan Dempster, there’s potentially a natural discussion point here for a larger deal. LaHair’s story is pretty well known at this point, as after years of tearing apart the minors, he made a great impression in a September cup of coffee last year and then was red-hot early this year, currently sitting behind only Joey Votto & Konerko in 1B wOBA.

I’m somewhat concerned about whether he was an early season mirage, however, because since the Dodgers went to Wrigley on May 4, LaHair is hitting only .250/.331/.426, and he’s not regarded as a great defensive first baseman. He also has one of the most extreme career platoon splits I’ve ever seen, where he’s basically a Hall of Famer against righties (in, admittedly, not the largest sample size) but is legitimately worse than Loney is against lefties. That would be a small complication, since in that case Loney really couldn’t even be retained as a lefty defensive replacement as he might be with some others, though that’s not enough of an issue to prevent a deal. His short track record, huge split, and potential return to earth all trouble me somewhat, though anyone who can hit righties like that and still has years of team control is absolutely an upgrade on Loney. The real question is, do we want Ned Colletti on the phone with Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer?

Carlos Lee, Astros
I feel like Lee has been rumored to be a potential Loney replacement for about three years now, but as he finally reaches the end of his absurd 6/$100m contract while the Astros are clearly in rebuilding mode, now may be the time we actually see him move. (He does have a no-trade clause to 14 unknown teams, which reportedly includes most of the West Coast clubs, though anything can be negotiated.) The first thing that struck me about Lee is that in 207 plate appearances this season, he’s whiffed just ten times. While he’s never been a big strikeout guy (or a big walk guy), that’s wildly out of line with his career norms. As he ages – he turns 36 in a few days – he’s not really anything like the big-time power bat he once was when he was hitting 24 or more homers every single year from 2000-2010, though the common refrain once again is that his .297/.348/.411 line is still better than Loney’s.

Oddly, the righty Lee hasn’t really had much of a platoon split over his career, being only very slightly better against lefties (.364 wOBA) in parts of 14 seasons than righties (.354). That’s gone completely pear-shaped this year, as he’s crushing righties and doing nothing against lefties, but I’m of course not going to let 44 PA against lefties take more precedence than the previous 13 years. He’s somewhat of an inexperienced first baseman, having made 119 of his 140 career starts at the position over the last two seasons, and is clearly a downgrade from Loney there. Considering his age, impending free agency, and money left on his contract, he’s unlikely to require much of a return in talent.

Justin Morneau, Twins
I don’t really think that the Twins are likely to trade their longtime star, but given that even despite their recent hot streak they still have the fewest wins in the American League, anything is possible, especially since Morneau is unlikely to be a part of the next good Minnesota team. Morneau is still owed approximately $23m through next year on an $80m extension he signed prior to 2008, but he hardly resembles the player who was the 2006 MVP and an All-Star in each of the four following seasons. His entire career has been sidetracked by concussion problems, though he also had cleanup surgeries to his wrist, foot, and knee last fall, plus a stint on the DL last month with continuing wrist soreness.

When he’s played this year, he’s been a shadow of his former self; well, sort of:

He feasted on right-handed pitching immediately. His 1.070 OPS against righties is fifth best in the major leagues. What left-handers do to Morneau more than balances that out.

Of the 168 hitters who qualify for the batting title, Morneau ranks 168th in batting average (.097), 168th in on-base percentage (.123) and 163rd in slugging percentage (.210) against lefties. He’s swinging more against them than anybody but Hamilton and Delmon Young, and he’s missing those swings at a baseball-worst 50 percent clip. Though he has hit two home runs, in 62 at-bats against lefties, he has just one line drive – and it was caught.

“I just can’t hit lefties,” Morneau said. “That’s what’s killing me.”

Morneau only just turned 31 last month, and the fact that he’s able to hit righties so well after all of his health concerns is encouraging. He’s also very expensive and potentially one concussion away from seeing his career end, so it’s hard to see him as a perfect fit. Still, it was only 2010 where he was hitting a monstrous .345/.437/.618 before being injured, and his performance against righties gives you some hope he’ll figure out the lefties again. Then again, “being better than James Loney” isn’t a high bar to clear.

Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox
I looked at Youkilis a few weeks ago and noted at the time that I liked his ability to play third as well as first. Though his recent injury history was more than a little concerning, he had looked good in a small sample after coming off the disabled list. Things haven’t gone well for Youkilis since then, hitting just .219/.315/.359 over the last month while one scout reported “for what he costs, he can’t do anything”. That, clearly, is not great, though it might have the benefit of driving his price downward. Unless he turns it around and soon, he no longer seems like an optimal fit, though I have a hard time believing that a guy who had a .373 OBP last year is suddenly useless. At the very least, his track record makes me confident that he could still be better than Loney and/or Uribe”, though only for the right price.

There are other teams who won’t be contending this year, like the Rockies, Padres, Mariners, & Athletics, but Todd Helton, Yonder Alonso, & Justin Smoak aren’t fits for a variety of reasons. (Oakland has started five players at first base and is now down to outfield bust Brandon Moss, so they’ll be of no help either.) As we feared over the winter, the second wild card really looks like it’s going to destroy the trade market, since so few teams will be obvious sellers, and of course, bad teams have less to sell anyway.

Yet while there’s only a few flawed options out there, this hardly seems like the kind of season where the Dodgers will be conservative in attempting to upgrade, and I just can’t see them riding Loney every day down the stretch. As some teams start to struggle over the next few weeks, perhaps new options will become available, but there’s just not that perfect fit. The Dodgers are going to have to take a chance on a flawed option to replace Loney, and that brings with it risk. Of the options we see here? Well, it’s almost too early to say, because much can change between now and July 31, and obviously the cost in talent going the other way is paramount in evaluating any deal. For now, I’d really like Youkilis to start performing; if not, then taking a chance on Morneau could be intriguing, and packaging LaHair with Dempster would also give you a low-cost option for the next few years; I don’t see Lee as a huge upgrade.

Which do you prefer, or are there other options?

James Loney Finally Does Something Awesome

As usual, James Loney has been his regular infuriating Loney self so far in 2012. Despite our best efforts to talk ourselves into believing in him, he’s once again on pace for the worst season of his career at the plate, and in yesterday’s one-run loss to Milwaukee he went hitless, in particular failing to bring a run home by flying out to end the third inning with the bases loaded.

Yet every once in a while, Loney does something great that endears himself to us forever, like when he & Javy Guerra photobombed a Hollywood premiere party this winter. This time, it’s because he (probably unintentionally) touched upon a topic that always makes the Twitterz tingle: #robotumpsnow, in regard to the poor call on Aaron Harang‘s throw to first which touched off the Milwaukee rally in the sixth last night.

“Whatever it takes, just get it right,” Loney said. “Even the guy behind the plate. A guy leaning behind the catcher doesn’t have the best view of all the balls and strikes. Watch the centerfield camera, that is the best way to call balls and strikes. It’s going to take more and more bad calls for all of that to happen.”

Loney went on to say he believes that “within 50 years, I would say,” baseball will have electronic umpiring in place.

Oh, James. How can we hate you when you’re going to go off and back us up on a topic that’s so dear to all our hearts?

To be clear, “robot umps now” is more of a general catch-all than an actual specific request; no one really wants Rosie from “The Jetsons” back behind the plate – though I could be talked into Bender from “Futurama” – and I’ve yet to really see anyone calling for instant replay on balls and strikes. It’s just that with so much technology readily available, it gets more and more ludicrous that we’re still seeing so many mistakes go uncorrected on safe/out and fair/foul calls.

I feel like we say this every season, but it really does seem like umpiring is at an all-time low this year. There’s really no way to prove if that’s true or not, and we’ll probably say it every year for the rest of our lives, just because blown calls get more and more media play as time goes on. (Come on, do we really think there weren’t terrible calls in the 1940s too?) Generally, I think MLB umps do a very tough job extremely well, and if we think that they’re getting worse, it’s probably more of a result of our ability to instantly view multiple HD replays from every game across the country than it really is about overall performance. (Except, of course, for that Jerry Hairston play in Colorado, which is and always will be the worst call in the history of sports.)

Yet while a solution seems so simple – and I don’t want to hear a word that having umps view replays would take more time, because we’ve all seen games grind to a halt as managers rush out to argue, and it’s not like you couldn’t have an off-field ump at each park to make those calls anyway – baseball is being held back by the out-of-touch King Dinosaur, Bud Selig:

“I’ve had very, very little pressure from people who want to do more,” Selig said.

Meanwhile, umpires afraid of looking bad and having their call overturned stubbornly refuse to even ask the rest of their crew for help, generally adopting an “I’m right and my word is law, so turn around” attitude:

“You get tired of being diplomatic,” Mattingly said after the game. “I just asked him to get help. We had a pretty good view of it. It was a play where (Loney) going across the line makes it look bad, but I just asked him to get help, and he wouldn’t do that. He told me he was 100-percent sure.”

“It’s not about him getting the call wrong,” Loney said. “It’s about him not asking for help. He said it was his call.”

We tend to only remember the calls that go against our team – and it’s not like Harang didn’t set this off himself by first making a poor throw on an easy play and then being unable to contain the rally that followed it – but the Dodgers have had a few go their way as well this season. (Or have we all forgotten the triple play that saved Guerra’s bacon in San Diego already?) Over 162 games, it tends to even out. But the day is going to come, and soon, where a blown call late in the season or in October bounces a team right out of the playoffs. We have the technology where within twenty seconds millions of people all around the world will be able to see what the correct call should be – everyone, really, except for the four men on the field who are actually empowered to make the call. We’ve already seen it cost an otherwise mediocre pitcher a perfect game, and I don’t look forward to the day that it ruins some team’s entire season.

#robotumpsnow. James Loney may not be much of a hitter, but he sure can be one hell of a spokesperson.

James Loney, Infield Constant

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.