After a slow start to the season, the Washington Nationals are finally playing like one of the best teams in baseball. While Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper generate most of the headlines, however, it’s their low-profile first baseman, Adam LaRoche, who is one of the driving forces behind their surge.
LaRoche points out hitting is as complicated as it is simple. Part of his comeback is as basic as a change in medication. Last year, the slugger tried an extended release medication for his ADHD, and the results were nothing short of disastrous.
"All of them are really appetite suppressers, and so I got to the point where I had no appetite," LaRoche said before a game with the Giants this June. "Heat and humidity played a role — sweating every day, losing a bunch of weight — and I got down to college weight." LaRoche just wasn’t healthy.
That can help explain the return in his power stroke, perhaps. But despite great results, he’s not really hitting the ball much farther — his batted ball distance on homers and flies is actually down three feet from last year. It’s still top 100 in the league, but he hasn’t added punch on those balls.
Part of what LaRoche is doing that is so great is that he’s making contact like he never has before. He’s posting a career-best strikeout rate (17.1 percent, career 22 percent), and it’s backed by the best swinging-strike rate of his career (6.9 percent, compared to his career mark of 9.7). That one stumped the hitter — "That … is really unexplainable," he said as he tugged at his beard.
He offered one explanation. "There’s a couple minor things in spring training that I worked on, mechanically — nothing major." A little change to his foot placement, some changes to his body movement — "trying to minimize a couple things, be as still as possible."
But he said he didn’t think those changes would be obvious from watching him. They are pretty subtle. One home run swing from May 2013 is first, and a homer from June 5 this year is second. Maybe his toe is more open when he puts it down this year, and maybe his hands a little calmer pre-swing?
LaRoche has an iconic batting stance, one that might give him an advantage by putting two eyes on the ball as it comes out of the pitcher’s hand.
"But the disadvantage is there are a lot of moving parts — you’ve got a long way to go in the stride, to turn and get to impact," he acknowledged. "It’s not a real simplified swing — that can cause longer stretches of slumping."
Perhaps his most recent tweaks have made him more comfortable, which is the biggest part of his good early season.
"I tell kids all the time, look at my swing and Jeff Bagwell’s swing and they’re just total opposites, but the fact is, that when you get to the position of impact, when you’re going after the ball, most of us are in about the same spot," LaRoche said. He found his most "confident and comfortable" swing when he was 8 or 9, but it still takes tweaks to this day.
Sabermetrics research is pretty sure that lineup protection doesn’t exist, but that’s not necessarily what the Nationals first baseman is talking about when he says that "you get in better counts" and the "pitcher mentality changes." After all, the slash line with men on base this year is .256/.326/.396, while it drops to .247/.309/.388 with the bases empty. LaRoche is following suit with a .326/.466/.528 line with men on this year, and the the team is helping with a .315 OBP this year, slightly better than last year’s .313 number.
It’s a question of defense, really — the pitcher turns to the stretch from the windup, and at least one defender has to stay close to a base. That open hole helps turn up the batting average on balls in play, especially with the runner at first. In that situation, the league BABIP rises from .297 to .315. LaRoche’s .358 BABIP with men on is a bit high, but not as high as if you compared it to the bases-empty league average.
One thing that has probably not led to a better beginning to this season is copious video work. Not that LaRoche doesn’t take part in video scouting and that sort of preparation. "It’s a chess match; they know what they did the last time they faced you," after all — but he draws the line at some point. Video "can do more harm than good," he said.
"You dig in too deep. That’s the worst thing a hitter can do, complicate things in his whole mind," LaRoche said. He felt that hitters aren’t usually as analytical as pitchers because "it’s happening so quick. The pitcher has more time. He can sit back on the mound, he can come up with the game plan and execute it."
It comes down to the fact that the pitcher knows what he is going to do, but the hitter can only react. "Some people can process it and take what they need," LaRoche said, nodding at the mention of Joey Votto and his approach, adding, "Most of us, when we process it, it’s all in there. We really can’t filter out what we need.
"If you go up there thinking that in 3-1 counts he’s going to throw 71 percent sliders, you start getting all this crazy stuff in your head, which we’ve all done at times. It does more harm than good," LaRoche said. "I think that’s why hitters don’t talk about it a lot, because in their mind, they know they have to simplify this to ‘see ball, hit ball.’"
Since hitting is primarily about comfort to LaRoche, it’s not surprising he said: "I don’t care what my swing looks like. I don’t care how I do it. I want to see it clearly and hit it."
So Adam LaRoche is seeing the ball clearly and hitting it well right now. Part of that might be better physical health. Part of that might be a small mechanical tweak, but he’s not making any big changes ("too old for that"). Part of that might be the fact that he’s coming up with runners on base more often ("it’s just a funny game; sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t").
Maybe the largest part of his good work so far this year is that he’s just more comfortable at the plate this year.