As the Blue Jays rallied from a 7-0 deficit against the Rays in Sunday’s finale, it sort of felt like destiny. It felt like a destiny mirroring Tampa Bay’s remarkable 2011 comeback. As everybody who had a pulse in 2011 knows, the Rays came back from down 7-0 in Game 162 to eventually beat the Yankees and steal the final playoff spot from the Red Sox in the most dramatic display of regular season baseball the sport has seen.
Of course, this isn’t Breaking Bad, and the bounces of the baseball don’t know symmetry. In the seventh inning, the Blue Jays had arguably their best chance: down 7-4, with one out and the bases loaded, Adam Lind came to the plate and hit a scorcher up the middle. Yunel Escobar was positioned perfectly, but he had a long way to run to second base, and the resulting throw caught first baseman James Loney with a medium hop right at his body, one of the toughest scoops a first baseman can face. If the ball goes by him, at least one run scores, and chances are an aggressive Brett Lawrie would have scored from second base as well.
Naturally, Loney picked it perfectly.
At this point, The Magical Rays First Baseman has turned into one of baseball’s most recognizable trope. It’s simple: the Rays sign a defensive-minded first baseman who hasn’t hit in years to a cheap deal, he flashes the leather as expected, and to boot he has a shockingly good season with the bat.
In 2008 and 2010, it was Carlos Pena, who had never posted an OPS+ above 115 in a full season prior to joining the Rays the year before. He put up a 1.037 OPS in 2007 and never did match that performance, but he posted OPS+ marks of 129 and 133 respectively with 70 combined home runs the next two years, including the Rays’ World Series run in 2008.
In 2011, it was Casey Kotchman. His 127 OPS+ with the Rays (.306/.378/.422) was sandwiched by marks of 73 and 72. According to Baseball-Reference, Kotchman compiled 3.7 WAR in 2011 against -0.8 in both 2010 and 2012.
Now it’s Loney. He was supposed to be a Dodgers superstar in tandem with Matt Kemp, but his power never developed, and the singles-hitting first baseman was definitely not in high demand back in the high-offense days of the mid-to-late aughts. But he plays defense and makes contact, and when offense goes in the toilet as it has in the past couple years, such players become more and more useful.
The Rays focus on defense, including and even especially in their first basemen. Joe Maddon praised his great defense prior to the season (as he suggested, in true Maddon fashion, there was “probably some chicken left on the bone there yet.”). General manager Andrew Friedman was more specific: “James has been one of the better defensive first basemen in the game for a while, and fit right in with our emphasis on defense.”
Even for the Rays, Loney’s bat must have been something of a surprise. His 119 OPS+ is his best mark in any season with more than 100 games played (he put up a 134 mark in 96 games in 2007 and a 125 mark in 48 games in 2006, his rookie season). But he’s basically the same hitter as before — lots of contact, middling power, and a few walks. This year, enough hits fell in to make him an above-average hitter — a less extreme version of what happened with Kotchman.
But the Rays can afford to try these lottery tickets with the first basemen they bring in because they know the massive positive effect they can have on an infield. Just 25 opposing hitters reached on an error on a ball hit to the infield against the Rays, by a wide margin the lowest mark in the league. It would be folly to solely attribute this mark to Loney’s defensive prowess — Prince Fielder‘s Tigers rank second with 32 infield errors, after all — but the job of the first baseman is primarily to turn throws that would otherwise be errors into outs, as Loney did in the play above.
But I don’t think it’s mere conjecture to suggest Loney deserves credit for the Rays finishing as the most sure-handed infield in the league. Evan Longoria, the only constant in all of these Rays infields, said Loney is “probably the best I’ve played with as far as the total package.” Loney has consistently rated as an excellent fielder in recent years by all available metrics, and those metrics often don’t include plays like Loney’s scoop above.
The Rangers will bring five players into Monday’s play-in game with at least 10 infield hits — Elvis Andrus (22), Adrian Beltre (19!), Craig Gentry (13), Leonys Martin (12) and Ian Kinsler (11). The game will almost certainly require a Rays infielder to make a quick throw on a dribbler or a play on the edge of their defensive range. Sometimes, for an infielder, there can be nothing more important than knowing if you just get it to first base, your first baseman will make the play. Loney gives the Rays both the confidence and the abilities to make these plays time and time again, and it could be a deciding factor Monday night.