There's lots of talk about the little LaRoche brother on this off-day, and I think that's probably warranted given the details. Rob Neyer speculates that there's something "seriously wrong" with LaRoc439 in he, and guesses it's physical more than mental. Charlie, meanwhile, plays off of Neyer's piece and guesses that maybe it is mental. Since both of those pieces were published, the PG has run an article mentioning that LaRoche's back pain hasn't completely gone away yet and implied that that may be a reason for both his struggles and his subsequent benchings.
So what's the deal? Like both Neyer and Charlie, I find it hard to believe that a guy from a baseball family, who's dad and brother were/are both solid Major Leaguers, has some kind of mental block between AAA and the big leagues. It just seems implausible to me. I don't want to be redundant here in repeating points that have already been made, but I do have a few things to add to the discussion.
First off, I've already said that I think that Chad Hermansen is a bad comp for LaRoche. In fact, all the usual suspects are. JJ Davis had good minor league numbers, but his minor league K/BB ratio doesn't even come close to LaRoche's. Andy Marte might be the best comparison; I'm still not sure what went wrong from his great 2001 season in AAA at the age of 21 and now. And yet, LaRoche's minor league numbers were better than Marte's. Even accounting for park factors and hitter-friendly leagues, LaRoche's K/BB numbers in the minors are 294/243. The guy knows how to hit. All of these uber-prospects who have fallen off the face off the earth saw huge declines in even their minor league numbers once their slides began; LaRoche hit .293/.452/.439 in AAA last year and we know he did it with a thumb injury that sapped his power. I'm just not sure how any of those other "mysterious collapse" cases fit with him.
The other point I would make is this: don't be so certain that Russell is benching LaRoche without the consent of the front office. There seems to be a pretty strong, "I can't believe Russell is doing this" sentiment, but I'm not so sure that a player that Huntington wants playing would be so quickly benched by Russell. We know that the Pirates rule over their minor league coaching staff with an iron fist. While I'm sure JR has more leeway than that, if the front office wants LaRoche playing every day, I have to think he'd be playing every day.
So that raises the question, why is he not playing? It could be the back injury; that seems like a perfectly valid reason to give a guy a few nights off if he's struggling in the field. Or it could be that he's quickly moved into Steve Pearce territory with management. I can't imagine the team was terribly pleased when he came to camp and his back problem acted up, only to find out that he hadn't been doing his stretches to try and prevent that. And I had heard that one of the reasons he was placed in Joe Torre's doghouse in LA was for pulling a Jose Bautista last year; deciding in the batter's box that he was going to try and squeeze-bunt a runner home without really telling anyone about it when all he had to do was put the ball in play to score the run. Not being a Dodger fan, I don't really have verification for this. I've certainly gotten the impression in the past that the front office hasn't always been pleased with LaRoche and that that's not all related to his play.
In the end? It's four games. Everybody's gone hitless over four games before and maybe this is nothing. Maybe his back hurts and Russell's giving him some down time to alleviate the pain and by May, this is all going to seem silly. I hope that's the case, but I become less and less positive every day that it is.