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Will the Real James Loney Please Stand Up?

James Loney
James Loney

April 3, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney (21) smiles after he scored a run against the Baltimore Orioles during the seventh inning at Tropicana Field. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

James Loney is throwing a wrench in stats tables across baseball. He “leads” the MLB with a batting average of .391, but he doesn’t lead because he doesn’t have the required number of plate appearances to be considered for the batting title. Not yet at least (as of May 7th, which happens to be his birthday).

In official baseball rules, a batter must have 3.1 plate appearances per game his team has played. The Tampa Bay Rays have played 31 games, prior to tonight’s matchup against a bewildered Toronto club, and Loney has 94 PAs, leaving him a couple short of qualifying for the batting race. He’s turning some heads, nonetheless.

Once he qualifies, he’ll turn even more heads, because his name will start showing up on stats tables. Take a look at his ranking on Baseball-Reference.com – they couldn’t resist the temptation of  putting him on the leaders list, even though he doesn’t qualify yet. They remedied the situation by adding the infamous asterisk. At least it’s not a bad one.

This brings me to my question: Will the real James Loney please stand up?

Some remember Loney as the 2007 Dodger who batted .331 with a decent amount of PAs (375), and some remember Loney as the 2012 toss-away. After spending a majority of the season in Los Angeles, where he broke into the Majors back in 2006, he was sent off to Boston where he continued to struggle.

His combined totals from last year: .249/.293/.336 – don’t forget his six home runs and 41 RBI. Loney’s 2012 BA was a far cry from his one of his more consistent years in 2011 when he batted .288. In 2011, Loney knocked in 65 RBI, which couples nicely with the good BA, but there’s something awry; in recent years, Loney has had a hard time putting it all together.

Many wonder whether he’ll return to the form he was in when he had three consecutive years with at least 88 RBI, and a batting average of at least .267. 2008-2010 were by far Loney’s three best years in the Majors, but since then, the average, power and run numbers have fluctuated. After last year, it seemed like he might end up being another “project.”

And then Tampa called.

Loney is back, or an incarnation of him is back. Or, he is simply excited to be in Tampa. Whatever it is, he’s making a strong case form himself as a highly productive first baseman in the American League. He’s moving at a startling pace, and as I mentioned above, it won’t be long before he gets enough PAs to qualify as a leader. His current slash-line stands at .391/.436/.540 – oh and he’s putting up a cool .976 OPS.

For the time being, all eyes will be on Loney, that is, unless a different version of the first baseman decides to stand up and take over where the superstar version left off.

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