The James Loney Fan Club is not finished just yet, folks. After taking a somewhat critically acclaimed look at the shortcomings of James Loney’s bat in August, it’s time dive into the issue that is the most divisive online: his fielding.
During Tuesday evening’s ninth inning, the Mets’ defensive failings directly led to the Nationals tying the game at 3-3. James Loney’s fielding was part of that inning’s supporting cast, even if he wasn’t the obvious culprit at first glance. With Daniel Murphy at first after reaching on an infield single, Bryce Harper stepped up to the plate and hit this slow grounder to Jose Reyes at 3rd base...
Okay, so it’s a wild throw by Jose Reyes. Nothing much could be done about that, right? Well luckily, SNY gave us another angle, so let’s check it out.
From this angle, it sure looks like Loney didn’t miss the ball by very much. Let’s freeze frame this here...
Oh wow, that is a lot closer than I thought at first blush. This photo reveals a big problem with James Loney defensively that unfortunately goes unnoticed unless you’re really looking for it: his unwillingness or inability to use his entire 6’4” frame at first base to stretch for the ball.
Is that really a big deal, you might ask? On close plays, those extra inches are a huge deal. It’s the difference between safe and out, the difference between inning over and extra pitches for the pitcher. And in this specific case, Loney’s inability to stretch—or at the very least vacate the bag the keep the throw from going into the stands—immediately cost the Mets bases and ultimately lead to them losing the lead.
In this particular instance, corralling the ball immediately becomes the most important job of the first baseman once he sees the wild throw. Get off the bag, catch the ball, and try to perform a swipe tag if possible. Let’s look at an example, shall we?
Here, you see this Good first baseman quickly realize the throw is off line. He leaves the bag, catches the ball, and applies the tag, getting the out! See? Good!
But that’s not the biggest problem with James Loney, as the title of this piece alludes to. It’s Loney’s lack of stretching and cheating off of first base that costs the Mets even more often. Let’s go back to the first play of Tuesday’s ninth inning, Daniel Murphy’s infield single.
And from the side...
That’s probably one of the best stretches I’ve seen from Loney in his time with the Mets and it’s still not great. Notice how he immediately collapses after making the catch. He’s clearly not a very flexible guy, which unfortunately makes his 6’4” height play smaller. And his typical stretch is basically the width of his shoulders, which is...not great.
Keith Hernandez has made a habit the last couple of years of talking about Lucas Duda “cheating” off of first base, especially on close plays with fast runners. It looks sort of like this:
It’s a very subtle movement but it’s essentially a little push off the base before he catches the ball, which ever so slightly cuts down the distance of the glove to the ball. Again, on bang-bang plays every inch is important. Even if this one isn’t particularly bang-bang, Duda does this all of the time.
Loney, on the other hand, never does this and on a play like that with Murphy chugging full speed to try to beat it out, that little cheat likely could’ve been the difference between a safe call and an out call.
Here’s a damning example of what it often looks like with Loney at first base, this from the Mets’ August 16 game against the Diamondbacks.
This play was initially called an out but upon review, the call was changed to safe. Keith Hernandez was beside himself watching it even before the call got reversed, saying:
“Not a good stretch. Gary, you’ve got to stretch there. That’s the difference in that play between safe and out.”
That’s certainly one of the more blatant instances of Loney not stretching at first but anecdotally, I’d wager that most of the balls Loney catches at first look closer to that than the stretch on the play Murphy beat out from Tuesday’s game against the Nats. Intuitively, it makes sense, right? The more you stretch, the closer your glove is to the ball, the sooner the ball reaches your glove. When you’re essentially kneeling on top of the base, like Loney does above, the ball has to travel all that extra distance to actually reach the glove. Thus the safe call.
Now just for reference, let’s look at how a Good first baseman handles a stretch.
See the difference? Okay, that first one is certainly one of Duda’s longer stretches but I think James Loney might tear a groin muscle just watching that one. You see, Duda’s always been adept at stretching and cheating off the base. It’s one of those attributes that goes unnoticed, but it’s part of the reason why Duda is so underrated at first and part of the reason why Loney’s reputation as an excellent defender is essentially a farce in the year 2016.
We may be talking about small differences, but I’m sure we all realize that the smallest of margins can make a major difference in the outcome of a play, an inning, and ultimately a game. It’s just one of the many things that supposedly excellent defender James Loney unfortunately isn’t really all that great at. It’s just subtle and often tough to see without isolating it like we did above.