Steady LaRoche takes it up another notch

Steady LaRoche takes it up another notch
September 16, 2012, 4:04 pm
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ATLANTA -- One of the central figures in the Nationals' 5-4 loss yesterday was Adam LaRoche, though certainly not for the reason he would have preferred. After being called by umpire Marvin Hudson for not keeping his foot on first base on a routine, sixth-inning grounder, the veteran's imprint on the outcome of the game was sealed.

If not for that botched call, LaRoche might well have been the central figure in a Nationals victory for what he had done way back in the first inning, something he has done plenty of times this year: Hit a ball out of the park.

With a two-run blast off the Braves' Tommy Hanson, LaRoche recorded his 30th home run of the season, a milestone he would have enjoyed celebrating if not for the events of the remainder of the evening.

"It's always nice to hit a mark or a milestone on a win," he said. "So it's a little bittersweet. But it's nice."

It's more than nice, both for the Nationals and LaRoche. After an injury-plagued 2011 and a rumor-filled winter that had many wondering if general manager Mike Rizzo was going to sign Prince Fielder to a mammoth contract and dump LaRoche (and his 8 million salary) to the curb, it's worth noting now just how much the Nats benefited from sticking with the status quo.

Not that Fielder wouldn't have been a nice addition to what has become one of the most-potent lineups in baseball. But the disparity in performance between the two first basemen isn't nearly as large as the disparity between their contracts (214 million vs. 8 million).

Fielder has put up his customary gaudy numbers in his first season in Detroit: 26 homers, 98 RBI, a .304 batting average, .404 on-base percentage, .513 slugging percentage and .917 OPS.

LaRoche's comparable numbers: 30 homers, 94 RBI, .269 average, .340 on-base percentage, .505 slugging percentage and .845 OPS.

Factor in defense, of course, and LaRoche closes the gap by a significant amount. The two have a nearly identical WAR (Wins Above Replacement) this season, according to Baseball-Reference's formula, with Fielder (3.4) narrowly edging out LaRoche (3.2). Fangraphs, which uses a slightly different formula in calculating WAR, has Fielder at 4.2 and LaRoche at 3.1.

The point, though, isn't to do a complete, side-by-side comparison of the two, but rather to reiterate how valuable LaRoche has been to the Nationals. Rizzo talked all spring about the consistent numbers LaRoche has posted throughout his career and how he fully expected the now-healthy first baseman to return to his career norms.

LaRoche has indeed done that, but he's stepped it up a notch or two as well. Though he's averaged 28.8 homers in each of his last seven healthy seasons, this is only the second time he's hit 30 (he hit a career-best 32 in 2006 with the Braves). And though he's averaged 88.5 RBI during those same seven seasons, he's already notched the second-most in his career (94) with a good chance to top his personal best mark of 100 set in 2010 with the Diamondbacks.

And none of this takes into account the different LaRoche has made in the field, both in his ability to field balls hit in his direction but more importantly his ability to catch wayward throws from his infielders (a skill that isn't measured by any advanced metric).

You don't have to convince Davey Johnson of LaRoche's importance to his team.

"He takes a lot of heat off everybody, and he's having an unbelievable year," the manager said a few days ago in New York. "He should be in the MVP consideration."

While LaRoche won't be a serious challenger to Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen and Ryan Braun in the actual MVP vote, his value within the Nationals clubhouse is well-known.

The Nationals and LaRoche face a key decision this winter. There's a 10 million mutual option left on his contract, which the Nats are sure to pick up, but LaRoche is likely going to want a longer commitment than that, creating a dilemma in which Rizzo has to decide how many more years he's willing to guarantee a first baseman who turns 33 in November.

For now, the Nats are simply happy they stuck with LaRoche for 2012, confident he would post his usual, consistent numbers and thrilled he's taken it up another notch.