Lost in the Nationals’ dreadful offensive slump to start off this season has been the re-emergence of Adam LaRoche as a legitimate threat with the bat. But unlike most of his past seasons, when he has been slow to start before the hits have come, the Nationals’ first baseman is charging out if the gate this season, carrying what has been an otherwise moribund offense.
After playing in just 43 games last year because of a torn labrum, LaRoche led the team in home runs with three and RBIs with 16 going into Saturday night’s game at Los Angeles. That almost matches his totals for his abbreviated 2011 season in the first 20 games this year. He also leads the team in average at .333. Over his eight-year career, LaRche has averaged 26 home runs and 92 RBIs per season, hitting .269/.338/.479. He belted a career-high 32 homers with Atlanta in 2006 and drove in a career-best 100 in with Arizona in 2010, the year before the Nats signed him as a free agent to replace the departed Adam Dunn.
So there’s no question that LaRoche has the ability to put up decent power numbers. The big surprise this year has been his fast start. Excluding his injury-shortened 2011 season, LaRoche has been a notoriously slow starter, especially in terms of batting average and RBIs. In his career-best RBI year of 2010, he had driven in just 10 and was hitting .281 at this point in the season. He already has as many homers as he’d hit to this point in his career-high 2006 season. He had driven in just four runs and was hitting .215 after 20 games at this point of that year.
Historically, Dunn has not heated up until the weather does. For his career, his best month is August, when he’s averaged five homers and 17 RBIs in the past six full seasons. In March and April combined, by comparison, he’s averaged just three homers and 14 RBI. That’s pretty much in line with what he’s doing this year, but it’s his average that has soared, although he has been more consistent in his most recent full seasons. His best 20-game average was .296 in 2010, beating his .269 mark for the first 20 games of 2009. But before that, he was abysmal. His best mark after 20 games in his first six seasons was .215 in 2006.
So can he keep it up? LaRoche is on pace to hit 24 homers, close to his career average, and drive in 128 runs, which would be a career high. But if you factor in his traditional spikes later in the season, those numbers stand to go even higher. It also stands to reason that LaRoche won’t bear the burden of carrying the Nats’ offense for the rest of the season. Ryan Zimmerman will likely be back from the disabled list in two weeks or so. Michael Morse will also probably return at some point in the season, and Jayson Werth seems to have returned to his pre-2011 form. If those things happen and the trends continue, LaRoche could get some protection in the order. If not, teams will start pitching around him. While it’s possible for him to have career years in several categories, realistically, look for him to post numbers close to his averages, with a slightly higher batting average.
What about his value for those who play fantasy baseball? Because of his position, first base, it’s doubtful LaRoche will rank with the elites in the company of Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Joey Votto and Paul Konerko. But his liklihood to post numbers at or near his career averages makes him worth a roster spot in deeper leagues.