A continuing series in which I pose rhetorical questions to myself, attempt to answer them, and get accused of cherry-picking stats. So far: Nyjer Morgan and the trade, Garrett Jones, Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, and Andrew McCutchen.
Andy LaRoche went 5-for-5 yesterday with four extra base hits (two homers and two doubles) and six RBIs. Because he hit a bit in May and he's hit well in September even before today, it's not fair to say that this explosion was an entire season in the making, but it's certainly close. Even with his huge day, LaRoche's season line sits at .259/.333/.403/736. That should give him an OPS+ of 98, which would mean that after park adjustments and the like, he's officially been about league average in 2009.
We didn't acquire Andy LaRoche to be league average and I'm not arguing that we did, but I feel like people have been saying for two months now that LaRoche has more or less proven he can't hit and that it's time to give his playing time to someone else. I've never really been sold on that statement, so now that my foot's in the door with his huge day today, let's take some time to examine the younger LaRoche brother's performance and what it might portend for the future.
A great place to start here is a post that I linked to a while back by Matt Bandi at the Pittsburgh Lumber Co., examining LaRoche's batted ball data, swing percentages, and BABIP and found that LaRoche has probably been beset by at least a little bit of bad luck this year and that he's probably closer to a .750 OPS player. Of course, that was written when his OPS was below .700 and so Matt's point was much more dramatic when he made it, but do agree that a larger point about LaRoche's offensive abilities exists.
The thing about LaRoche's minor league profile that I thought was most interesting, both before and after he was traded to the Pirates, wasn't his home run power. Instead, what jumped out at me was his BB/K numbers; in 2093 minor league plate appearances, he walked 243 times and struck out just 294. In 2008, when he was reportedly dealing with a thumb injury, he drew 37 walks with Triple-A Jacksonville while striking out only 14 times. Even before he was traded to the Pirates there were some real concerns about how his power would translate to the big leagues, but it seemed hard to believe that a guy with such a great grasp on the strike zone would fail forever in the big leagues.
Now we're nearly through LaRoche's first big league season, and that plate discipline has translated fairly well. His 49 walks aren't hugely impressive, but paired with just 77 strikeouts they make a decent line. I was curious to see how that stacked up historically, so I went to Baseball-Reference's Play Index and looked for seasons with enough PAs to qualify for the batting title by players 25 or younger in the first five years of their career who walked between 45 and 55 times and struck out between 75 and 85 times. I pulled in 47 seasons (some players made the list twice), with LaRoche's OPS+ ranking him 33rd. That's low but not necessarily bad news for LaRoche. There are quite a few good players, including Craig Biggio, Robbie Alomar, and Rod Carew who started their careers off with strikeout, walk, and OPS stat lines that don't look terribly different from what LaRoche has done this year.
I'm not saying that LaRoche is going to turn into Biggio, Alomar, or Carew. That's just not very likely; Carew is in the Hall of Fame, Biggio is going to join him, and Alomar at least has a shot to do the same. What it does say is that there are players who have seasons similar to the one Andy LaRoche is having now that go on to have good careers. That doesn't mean that LaRoche ultimately will go on to have a solid career of his own, just that we shouldn't push that idea out of consideration based on his 2009 numbers.
One more thing I'd keep in consideration for LaRoche is the pattern his minor league numbers followed. In his first stint with Vero Beach (advanced A-ball) in 2004, he hit .237/.295/.434 in 62 games. In his second go-round there in '05, he hit .333/.381/.651. That earned him a promotion to Double-A Jacksonville where he hit .273/.367/.445 in 64 games. In 2006, he started off in Jacksonville again and hit .309/.419/.483 in 62 more games. Each time he repeated a level in the lower minors, he improved. Even though he hasn't been a great player in 2009, he's vastly improved over his struggles with the Dodgers and Pirates in 2007 and 2008. He just turned 26; he doesn't necessarily have to be done improving.
I think there's plenty of reason to keep LaRoche at third base at least until Pedro Alvarez bangs the door to Pittsburgh down. That might only be until June of next year, but I think we'll have a pretty good idea pretty early on in 2010 if LaRoche is making strides or not. He's not going to be a 30 homer guy, but that doesn't mean he's a bad hitter (focus on the part about what LaRoche needs to be good, which still holds true even if the rest of the post would get me fired as a psychic at a flea mall) or even that he's a disappointment.
Ultimately, I'm still a bit disappointed by LaRoche this year and I'm not even sure that I'd say that I'm cautiously optimistic that he's going to be more than a .270/.350/.400 hitter that makes a nice utility guy, but doesn't have enough bat to play third or enough glove to play up the middle. Still, he's done enough in 2009 to earn one more shot to prove all of us wrong and if he does, I won't be surprised.