When looking through Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections for 2010 (which were posted last week), my initial reaction was almost identical to my reaction to last year's ZiPS: "Damn, this team is going to be bad." My second reaction was this: "Wow, these projections don't see a whole lot of room for growth in Andy LaRoche, do they?" So far, we've discussed projections from Bill James, CHONE, and now ZiPS. Baseball Prospectus won't release their PECOTAs for a bit, but it's easy enough to spot a trend.
- Andy LaRoche in 2009: .258/.330/.401 with 29 doubles, five triples, and 12 HR
- LaRoche 2010 Bill James Projection: .254/.338/.402 with 28 doubles, two triples, and 15 HR
- LaRoche 2010 CHONE: .263/.346/.406 with 23 doubles, two triples, and 12 HR
- LaRoche 2010 ZiPS: .260/.345/.399 with 24 doubles, two triples, and 12 HR
So each of the three projection systems see a bump in OBP for LaRoche in line with his minor league numbers, but not much else improvement. That's not to belittle even a .015 bump in OBP; a .345 OBP for LaRoche in 2009 would've given him a .746 OPS and pushed his OPS+ over the magical 100 barrier.
Still, I wonder, is that all the improvement we can expect from a player entering his second full big league season at the age of 26? We know LaRoche can hit well for extended stretches. In May of 2009, he hit .330/.411/.457 and in September/October he hit .313/.359/.552. Seven of his homers and 14 of his doubles came in those two months. If he could just be a little more consistent ...
But that argument can be misleading, though. Think back to when Bill Mazeroski was on the verge of being elected into the Hall of Fame. His supporters were saying things like, "If Bill would've just gotten two more hits a month in his prime, his career batting average would be almost .280 instead of .260!" That argument is nice, but he didn't get those hits. In his 38 career wins, Ian Snell has a 2.11 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP, and a 7.6 K/9. If he'd just pitch like that in every start ...
I'm rambling, but the point is that what separates good players and bad players is that consistency. Remember when LaRoche was struggling badly with the Pirates in 2008; there was some speculation that his good batter's eye was the reason for his high minor league batting average because he simply wasn't swinging at pitches he couldn't hit and the pitchers he was facing just weren't good enough to consistently throw him pitches that gave him trouble. It seemed then that maybe his passive approach at the plate just wouldn't translate well. Though the sample sizes are awfully small, in August he drew more walks (12) and struck out less (10) than any other full month on the season, and he hit .205/.307/.352. Maybe there is something to the criticism that he can be too passive/defensive at the plate.
Then again, projections only see his .166/.252/.256 line in 2008. They can't take in to account his thumb injury, the toll of being traded to the Pirates, or the effect of having Joe Torre and Ned Colletti yank his chain around all year (though those last two things are a little too intangible for my liking). And if we want to throw out all of his big league experience prior to 2009, LaRoche has a pretty consistent record of improving in his second year at each tier of his career.
But we can't just ignore his pre-2009 MLB numbers and pretend that he was a rookie last year, no matter how much we want to do it for our own sanity (again, those projections for the whole team are bleak). He's capable of ugly slumps. We've seen that again and again. But we also know that he's capable of very good months, months and that if given the chance, he's still young enough that he could flourish. Of course, he's also not so young that we should expect that. If I had to guess, I think his projections for this year might be on the low side, but probably not by much.