Pirates Notebook: LaRoche got a bad rap

Adam LaRoche never had a chance.

No, I’m not talking about the odds of him being traded this season. I’m talking about the unreasonable expectations laid upon him by most Pittsburgh Pirates fans.

I always feel like this comparison elaborates on how LaRoche received unfair treatment:

Player A: .270/.341/.500 with 25 HR in 492 AB the 2008 season

Player B: .276/.356/.497 with 26 HR in 597 AB during the 2008 season

Player A is Adam LaRoche. Player B is Nate McLouth. This year McLouth is hitting .257/.341/.455 with 14 HR in 323 AB. LaRoche is hitting .247/.329/.441 with 12 HR in 324 AB.

When McLouth was traded, Pirates fans were outraged. When LaRoche was traded, Pirates fans rejoiced. The question I have is: With so little difference in their stats, why did people love McLouth, and hate LaRoche? Here are some possible reasons:

1. When LaRoche was acquired, there was a massive hype surrounding him. LaRoche was touted as “Lefty McThump”, the big power hitter to anchor the Pittsburgh Pirates offense. LaRoche was just coming off a season where he hit .285/.354/.561 with 32 homers in 492 at-bats with Atlanta. However, the majority of his success came in the number seven spot of a loaded Atlanta lineup.

2. LaRoche came to the team with those lofty expectations. He also suffered from the “big fish, small pond” syndrome in a “he’s one of the few sources of power on the team” manner. So not only does he have big expectations laid on him, but he’s also being relied on as one of our only options.

3. A lot of players have one or two bad months each season. The problem with LaRoche is that he always seems to struggle at the start of the year, making those bad months obvious. Everyone complains when LaRoche gets off to a bad April, but no one said anything when Nate McLouth struggled with a .214 average in June last year, then a .226 average in August, with three homers combined between those months. Two months is two months, regardless of when it happens in the season.

4. LaRoche had a lot of misconceptions about how bad he was. A few examples:

He grounds in to too many double plays: LaRoche has 9, same as Freddy Sanchez.

He only hits homers in meaningless situations: Looking at his HR chart, he only has three homers this year where the team was ahead by more than three runs. He has two homers where the team was behind by 4-5 runs in the 9th (although one of those sparked a rally, which ironically ended with him). He has three insurance run homers, with the Pirates leading by 3 or fewer runs at the time. He has three homers that tied the score, and one homer that broke a tie. Looking at his WPA numbers, Adam LaRoche has contributed a +141%, which is almost three wins, with his homers this season. It’s a stretch to say that they all come in meaningless situations.

He’s not a “clutch hitter”: I hate, hate, HATE this phrase. Jason Bay was not a “clutch hitter” when he was here, or at least that’s all we heard. Then Bay goes to Boston, and all of a sudden he’s a “clutch hitter”. So what changed? Instead of watching every single at-bat Jason Bay had, Pirates fans only caught the highlights. If Bay were hitting in Pittsburgh in June and July, do you think Pirates fans would be calling him “clutch” while watching him bat .213 combined in June and July? LaRoche is batting .265 over that span, and he was getting killed.

A lot of what has to do with “clutch” is the fact that we watch every at-bat by Pirates players, and only catch the good at-bats for other players. We no longer see Jason Bay striking out with the bases loaded, down by one run in the sixth inning. We only see him when he hits a bases clearing double. We do see Adam LaRoche in either situation. Fans also expect a player to get a hit in every one of those situations. When the player gets a hit, he’s just doing what’s expected of him. When he doesn’t get a hit, the fans take notice.

So if LaRoche goes to Boston and starts playing better, realize that he’s the same player (with some differences that I’ll go over), only we don’t see every at-bat, just the good stuff.

In Summary

Let’s say you’re golfing and you want to hit the ball 300 yards off the tee. Rather than selecting your driver to do the job, you pull out the three iron. You hit the best shot you can with the three iron, and you get 200 yards.

That’s not what you’re looking for, but the problem isn’t the three iron. The problem is that you picked the wrong club for the job, and you expected too much from the three iron. You also wouldn’t consider the three iron a bad club, as it’s actually a good club for the right situation, and this was not it.

That sums up how I feel about Adam LaRoche. You can’t argue that he wasn’t a good player. Last year there were only seven first basemen who hit for more homers, with a better average than LaRoche, who hit .270/25 HRs. The problem is that LaRoche isn’t a guy who can carry an offense.

He was touted by DL as a number four hitter, when in fact he showed in Atlanta that he was much better lower in the order (.236 average in 140 AB batting 5th vs .310 average in 232 AB batting 7th in 2006). He also was in a lineup with Andruw Jones (the 40 HR version), Brian McCann, Chipper Jones, and Jeff Francoeur (the 30 HR version that hit .260). Simply put, the Braves weren’t relying on LaRoche to win games.

Then he comes to the Pirates and starts batting in the middle of the order. That’s like using your iron off the tee of a par five. Don’t be amazed when the production is coming up short.

Just like the three iron scenario, Adam LaRoche wasn’t a horrible player because he was in the wrong role. He was a good player. He just wasn’t a star. Put him with Boston batting seventh, with guys like Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Jason Bay in the lineup, and his production suddenly looks a lot better.

It didn’t help matters that people started classifying certain habits of LaRoche (see #4 above), despite the fact that they’re not exactly true. Usually once a fan has an opinion on a player, they’re only looking for affirmation, not information. So if LaRoche hits a game tying two run homer off of K-Rod in the ninth, that is looked at as the exception to the “he never hits a homer when it counts”. When LaRoche hits a homer in the ninth inning when the Pirates are up 9-1, people point to it to prove their point.

I agree with the idea of trading LaRoche. The Pirates aren’t winning anything this year, and they don’t hurt their chances of re-signing him in the off-season by trading him. As for the idea of bringing him back, I’d say the earliest we can expect to see Pedro Alvarez would be June 2010, to give him time at AAA, and avoid Super Two status. This means we’d need a stopgap.

I’d imagine we could get LaRoche to return on a discount, since he’d have the opportunity to play with his brother again, and might be able to use a one year deal to try and get a better contract on the free agent market after the 2010 season. For a team that’s looking for power, I don’t see the problem with adding LaRoche for a few more months to fill the gap until Alvarez is ready. Ask yourself this: what better options are available to the Pirates on the free agent market? I’m betting you can’t find any in the price range that we’d get LaRoche at.

The MVP Tracker

The MVP Tracker is updated with the 7/21 loss. Here are the top performers for 7/22:

1. Brandon Moss: .373 WPA
2. Ryan D

oumit: .191
3. Joel Hanrahan: .186
4. Garrett Jones: .181
5. Ramon Vazquez: .156

Other Stuff

-The Pittsburgh Pirates Prospect Watch for 7/22 is up.

-I added Argenis Diaz to the Prospect Tracker. I heard that Neal Huntington said that Jack Wilson won’t have his option removed on MLB home Plate (this is unconfirmed, just something I read today). My guess is that Diaz will take over at short next year and start until a guy like Chase D’Arnaud or Jarek Cunningham is ready. I’d imagine a lot of people will be down on the idea with Diaz starting due to his bat, but with Neal Huntington’s tendency to favor ground ball pitchers, it’s more important to have great defense in the infield, and that’s someting that Diaz possesses.

-I also did some speculating on the rumor about the Pirates getting a better offer for LaRoche.

-Thanks to the Dave Kerwin shirts, and the Adam LaRoche trade, the blog received a record amount of visitors today (over 4200 people). Thanks to everyone who visited. Be sure to bookmark the blog and check back daily.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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