Adam LaRoche is currently considered by many to be the Nationals’ leading candidate for the first base position. You probably already know that he’s a decent fielder and that he’s a lefty – those are things that have been widely publicized during this offseason. But LaRoche is famous in the fantasy baseball world for something else – the amazing difference between his first half performances and those in his second half.
It’s not just an illusion for fantasy baseball players who remember a year or two. Sometimes in these cases, a guy will be at the peak of his value – like LaRoche around the 2006-2008 timeframe – and we see them do something like start off poorly and finish strong. From that reference point everybody remembers, they assume he always plays like that, when in fact it was just in those 2 or 3 seasons people were paying attention. But not with LaRoche. In his career he’s hit .252/.327/.449 in the first half of the season, and .295/.354/.535 the rest of the way.
That’s a difference of .113 OPS points from the first half to the second. It’s significant amount, so I figured it’s worth looking at his month to month distribution.
It’s pretty clear that not only is his first half worse, he starts off very very poorly. His pre-May hitting is abysmal, a .701 OPS compared to the low-.780s for the following two months. But even those two months are worse than the rest of the year. So he’s a slow starter. I wondered if it was all coming from his batting average, or if there were other components of his hitting that were monthly. Here’s a look at his OBP minus his AVG, which I’ll call walk rate
Interestingly enough, it seems that his walk rate goes DOWN when he’s hitting well. Which means perhaps he’s too picky, or tentative early on in the season. The only spike comes in August, but it is hard to tell what exactly this means. I checked and his intentional walk rate doesn’t go up in his best hitting month, at the same time it is certainly possible that he gets pitched around quite a bit in August.
Another look I wanted to see was his isolated power, or ISO
What we see with this is somewhat similar to the overall OPS trend. But not quite. While it jumps up in the second half, it also stays pretty flat throughout the entire first half.
My first observation is that his power is flat in the first half, his walk rate is at its highest, and his OPS is at the absolute bottom. That means his AVG is in the tank that month compared to every other month. And it’s true – his Apr AVG is .211, his next lowest is .257. He simply cannot hit the baseball well that month.
Another thing I think is interesting to note – his power does go up as the season goes on. So you can not only expect an improvement in hitting for average, you can expect more homers later in the year.
A final thing of note is how his walk rate DECREASES as he becomes a better hitter. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, most hitters tend to take more walks as they are hitting better, not the other way around.
Setting aside the curious walk rate, there is something important to take away here. Nationals fans need to be patient with LaRoche. It is probably less appealing to a struggling team like the Nats to have a second half hitter than a very good team. They need to get off to a strong start to get people excited and have any chance of being relevant in the second half of the season. But that’s not what they’ll get with LaRoche.
But if they end up with him, there is something else fans should be cognizant of – his recent performance. Last year his April/March OPS was the best of his career by far, but it was his worse overall year since 2005, his second year in the league. So maybe if he comes out strong in his first month, we should be much more worried than if he doesn’t.