Surprise! Adam LaRoche Fueling Nats Quick Start

After Tuesday night’s games, the Washington Nationals sit atop the National League East with a record of 9-3.  Much of the team’s early success is due to outstanding pitching from both starters and relievers, who have limited opponents to 30 runs in twelve games. Only the Rangers have allowed fewer runs so far, albeit in eleven games. The Phillies have given up 33 runs.

But as good as the Nationals’ pitching has been, the Nationals have distanced themselves from Philadelphia so far with better offense: 46 runs scored for the Nationals to only 35 runs scored for the Phillies. And it’s veteran first baseman Adam LaRoche who is powering the Nats offense so far.

When you think about the best National League first basemen over the last five seasons or so, LaRoche doesn’t come to mind. Pujols, Fielder, Votto, Gonzalez, and Howard top the list. He often gets off to a slow start, turning it on offensively after the All-Star game. He doesn’t walk enough, strikes out too much, and has below-average defense.

LaRoche has bounced around the National League, playing four seasons with the Braves (2004-2007), one with the Pirates (2008), one with the Diamondbacks (2010) and two with the Nationals (2011-2012). In 2009, he was traded from the Pirates to the Red Sox in July, and six days later was traded back to Atlanta, where he played the rest of the season. A journeyman of sorts. A decent first baseman. Nothing special. That’s his rap.

The Nationals signed LaRoche to a 2-year/$15 million deal before the 2011 season. They got little value in the first year, however, as LaRoche started the season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder and eventually had season-ending surgery in July. His role on the team heading into 2012 was uncertain. Michael Morse, who took over at first base for LaRoche last season, had a career year offensively. Young phenom Bryce Harper was pushing to make the Nats’ Opening Day roster. Sure, the Nationals stilled owed LaRoche $8 million, but it wasn’t clear at start of spring training how manager Davey Johnson would use him once the season got underway.

Things have a way of working out, though. Morse injured his back. Harper was sent to Triple-A. And the Nats named LaRoche their Opening Day first baseman. He has not disappointed.

Through the first eleven games of the season (so, all small sample size caveats apply), LaRoche was batting .333/.423/.533 for a .414 wOBA. His on-base average is getting a big boost from a higher-than-career-average 13.5 percent walk rate. And his walk rate is up, in part, because he’s seeing more pitches-per-plate appearance (4.3) than in any season dating back to 2007.

Two other Nationals are also to very good starts. Leadoff hitter and shortstop Ian Desmond was hitting .346/.382/.481 heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Astros. And Jayson Werth looks to be regaining the offensive prowess (if not the power) he showed with the Phillies from 2007 to 2010. Through Monday night’s action, Werth was batting .341/.431/.432. But the rest of the Nationals lineup has not done much at all. All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, second baseman Danny Espinosa, center fielder Roger Bernadina, catcher Wilson Ramos, and outfielders Xavier Nady and Mark DeRosa had all posted wOBA below the National League average of .303.

LaRoche is having the biggest impact with runners on base. He’s posted a .493 wOBA with runners on and a .425 wOBA with runners in scoring in position, numbers way ahead of his career averages.  He’s hit two of the Nationals six home runs. And he’s driven in 13 of the Nationals 46 runs scored.

Sure, his BABIP is off the charts right now at .433. He’s been lucky and benefited from playing against teams with less than stellar defense. But he’s creating his own luck by hitting line drives and fly balls a much higher clip than he has over the course of his career.  Before this season, his lowest ground ball rate was 35 percent. So far in 2012, it’s at 21. 9 percent.

At 33 years old, LaRoche is off to the best start of his career. Right now, he’s the engine powering the Nationals to their best start since the franchise moved from Montreal to Washington in 2005.




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Wendy also writes for Sports on Earth and Bay Area Sports Guy. She's written for ESPN.com, Baseball Nation and The Wall Street Journal. Wendy practiced law for 18 years before pursuing her passion for baseball. You can follow her writings and ravings on Twitter @hangingsliders.

19 Responses to “Surprise! Adam LaRoche Fueling Nats Quick Start”

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  1. John says:

    Correction: Harper is in AAA, not AA.

    Also, I think it’s a little bizarre to write a piece about the Nats quick start by neglecting to talk about its league-leading pitching: 112IP, 1.69ERA, 117SO. But yes, LaRoche is getting it done too I suppose.

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  2. Nicolas says:

    Fangraphs, please stop surprising us.

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  3. james atkocius says:

    ….I don’t get it. I’ve watched the game all my life, played enough when younger to get a scholarship (and cannon-fodder invites to rookie instructional camps), Yet when I read that ALR has “below-average defense”…I wonder if the writer has ever seen the guy play.
    Listen-his apparent lack of “fire”… is in contrast to his actual superlative :D” (while playing nonchalantly). Mebbe AG in Boston. Pujols when sprier. But HEY_WATCH THE GUY PLAY!!!! Some are as good, NO ONE substantially better. Really. And I’m not some anti-sabre guy, or some homer. I’m just in awe of how good he is…..almost a mirror of Zimm at 3rd. That said…love the site. Daily must read
    Jim

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    • shoewizard says:

      I was actually disappointed in his play at first base when he was with Arizona. He came with a good reputation, better than his numbers, so I was open minded and expected him to look pretty good. But he made a surprising number of mistakes (11 errors)

      Looking at the see saw nature of his defensive numbers doesn’t really clarify anything. I can only go by when I saw more of him.

      On another note: Why doesn’t FG update the aggregate defensive ratings any more ? They only go up through the 2010 season. I actually prefer to refer to those more than anything else.

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  4. james atkocius says:

    Whoops…meant to add that “while RZimm is all fast twitch acrobatics and incredible grabs (good for highlight clips0, ALR is so smooth you barely notice his sublime play. “Nothing to see here, folks…just move along…no need for any attention”. P.S.-the locals-press and peon alike-all MARVEL/FAWN over his defense in a way that goes WELL beyond “homer-ism” or wishful thinking! And one last tidbit (having nada to do with ALR)-the Nationals are now 24-8 over their last 32. Small size, still….but growing (hope I ain’t hexed “em!).
    Jim

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  5. Pat says:

    I thought the Nats signed LaRoche to a two year 20M deal. I’m probably wrong but 2/15 makes sense for his slightly above average skillset.

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  6. Greg says:

    I agree LaRoche is a + Defender

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  7. mickeyg13 says:

    LaRoche didn’t play for Atlanta in 2007; we was traded to Pittsburgh before the season started. Add that to what he did before getting traded in 2009 and it’s more like two and a half seasons with the Pirates, not just one.

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  8. NatinBeantown says:

    Agree with others here that it’s silly to call LaRoche a “below average defender”. He can pick the low ones with the best in the league and has excellent footwork, the primary assets of his position. The defensive metrics have a long way to go in properly measuring defense at C and 1B. In the meantime, use your eyes.

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  9. DCN says:

    LaRoche looks to the eye like a very good defensive first baseman, and it’s a tough position for the defensive metrics.

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  10. Esoteric says:

    Just going to second (third?) the comments of others here that anyone who labels LaRoche as a “below average” defender is relying on defensive metrics which are 1.) not entirely reliable, conceptually speaking, in the first place; 2.) particularly ill-suited to capturing 1B defense.

    Because anyone who has watched LaRoche play 1B this season would be able to tell you that he has been a superlative defender. The best in the game? No, because he lacks the mobility that Pujols still has (and Teixeira had in his prime but has lost in recent years). But his ability to pick tough throws compares favorably to anyone else in the game, and his ability to stretch off the bag for balls that should be heading into foul territory has been remarkable early on in this seasons. He has converted at least six would-be errant throws from Desmond and Zimmerman (read: runners score/advance) into back-breaking outs already.

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  11. Shaun Catron says:

    Maybe the Mayans were right about the end of the world.

    Adam LaRoche isn’t terrible anymore and Albert Pujols can’t hit HRs anymore. And A.J. Pierzynkski and Derek Jeter are tied for #2 in the A.L. in HRs.

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  12. Wedge's Indians says:

    SHIN SOOO CHOOOOOO!!!! But seriously, Choo is as good of a dancer as Laroche is a defender, if you catch my drift.

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  13. NatsLady says:

    Below average defense????? Which Adam LaRoche are you looking at? He is a vacuum cleaner over there. RZimm and Desi would probably have at least 5 more errors each if he weren’t at 1B. After Morse (a statue, although a tall statue who could dig balls out) and Adam Dunn–! Yes, he had an error this year, yes, he did. And he had a TON of great plays, just not the type that make highlight reels. Also, Nats don’t have a lot of double-plays because not a lot of guys get on base.

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  14. TJ says:

    He is also, arguably, the greatest August hitter of all time. So a hot start might mean a HUGE year

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