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.