Adam LaRoche: ‘Buck Commander’ bounces back in 2014

Entering 2014, I was skeptical that a 33-year old Adam LaRoche (now 34) would have a bounce back season. I saw his poor showing in 2013 as the beginnings of his decline rather than an aberration, and if I was convinced of anything it was that after ’14, the Nationals would be better off with Ryan Zimmerman at first.

In many ways, LaRoche proved me wrong. Both his OPS+ and wRC+ were nearly as good as his 2012 campaign (124 and 127 respectively) with both close to his career bests as well. Essentially, as an offensive contributor LaRoche was somewhere between 24-27% better than the average player after adjusting for park effects. That’s not insignificant at a position typically occupied by offensive threats, and LaRoche was ranked eleventh in the Majors for OPS+ and ninth for wRC+ for a first basemen.

LaRoche’s 26 home runs put him tied for eighth in the Majors, his 82 walks third, and his 92 RBI tied with the Mets Lucas Duda for seventh. LaRoche missed 14 games in May due to a quad strain, so the counting stats would be higher still, but the important takeaway from all of this is that LaRoche’s presence in the Nationals lineup brought real value, especially as his left-handed bat provided balance to a right heavy batting order.

In the field, depending on what defensive metric you consider, LaRoche was either middle of the pack (Baseball-Reference has his dWAR of -1.0 ranked 12th with Miguel Cabrera) or the worst defensive first basemen in baseball (he’s ranked dead last in both UZR and the all-encompassing Defensive metric at Fangraphs).

 

I wouldn’t go so far as to claim he’s the worst, or argue that Cabrera is his equal with the leather, but LaRoche didn’t exactly look like the second coming of Keith Hernandez out there either. LaRoche did make his way onto the ballot as a Gold Glove finalist for 2014, but so did Cabrera, and that both men hit well enough without stone hands to leave an impression with coaches and players.

Personally, even though his range was limited, I enjoyed LaRoche’s moxie in the field. His punching with his glove after every putout brought joy. Every team needs a little arrogance, and LaRoche brought that attitude to the infield in buckets.

He also wore a camo arm-sleeve and sported a mesmerizing beard:

Just look at this man’s buck tattoo. If that doesn’t indicate a man who means business, I don’t know what does.

These things should not be disregarded lightly.

No discussion of LaRoche’s 2014 season is complete without mentioning his pinch hit home run, and subsequent heroics, against the Dodgers in early September. Suffering through lower back tightness, LaRoche tied the game against Kenley Jansen in the ninth, then drove home three more in extra innings, including the game-winner. A few days later, LaRoche hit two home runs against Cole Hamels, keeping the game tied until Scott Hairston could drive home Ian Desmond in the sixth. These games weren’t critical to the NL East, but they meant quite a lot in helping to determine home-field advantage in the playoffs.

LaRoche also played nuisance to two of the Nats East foes this season, clubbing five home runs and driving in 11 against the Phillies and hitting six homers with 18 RBI against the Mets. One big reason why the Nats were 15-4 against the Mets this season was that LaRoche saved his best games for the New York rivals.

LaRoche was a patient hitter, working the count to see more favorable pitches, and his 4.04 pitches per plate appearance was rated ninth for all Major League first basemen. He swung at fewer pitches outside the zone than nearly all batters, and his 82 walks were second on the Nats, one behind Jayson Werth. That the Nats ranked third in the NL in total walks owes quite a bit to LaRoche and Werth (the two combined for 32% of all the Nats walks). The team also struck out a lot, fifth in the NL, and LaRoche finished the year with 108, fourth on the team, while his K% of 18.4 was behind only Desmond’s 28.2.

In three separate games this season, LaRoche struck out four times, which tied him with Jon Singleton (who was sort of a strikeout machine for the Astros) for the most games by a first basemen. Of course, three players had five such games, including Giancarlo Stanton, and Javier Baez managed to accomplish this feat in just 52 games, so as long as you hit home runs and get on base, strikeouts aren’t necessarily bad. LaRoche certainly accomplished both, with his OBP of .362 tied for 25th in all of baseball.

LaRoche is a fine player, accumulating 1.6 fWAR and 2.2 bWAR respectively. These are both middle of the pack, but it’s difficult to see how he improves upon those numbers next season. First basemen typically do not have seasons of 2+ bWAR once reaching the age of 34. The list of players that have done so is filled with all-time greats like Carl Yastrzemski and George Brett or played during the Steroid Era. Of the 95 individual seasons where a first baseman accumulated greater than 2 bWAR, a third of those occurred between 1994-2004. So, the odds are against LaRoche playing as well as he did in 2014.

LaRoche is a free agent after the Nationals declined his 15 million dollar option, and it’s highly unlikely the Nats will attempt to resign LaRoche unless it was under a ridiculously undervalued contract. The Nats have too many infielders now, and there are enough teams out there with needs at first (either the Pirates depending on what they decided to do with Pedro Alvarez or the Orioles if the O’s aren’t convinced that either Steve Pearce or Chris Davis is the answer, but it won’t be the Brewers, a name linked to LaRoche all year, after Milwaukee just traded Marco Estrada to the Blue Jays for Adam Lind).

With a healthy Ryan Zimmerman likely moving to first next season, LaRoche is the odd man out unless Mike Rizzo wants to create the kind of infield mess that the Nats started the season with. Depth is always nice, proven by the Nats bench this season, but the Nats can use Tyler Moore or sign someone like J.P. Arencibia for a multipurpose bench role. Also, the Nats need to free up as much cash as possible for 2016 free agents such as Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Ian Desmond. That means LaRoche will play elsewhere in 2015.

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