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August 24, 2006

Player Profile

Adam LaRoche

by Marc Normandin

Adam LaRoche, older brother of highly touted Dodgers prospect Andy LaRoche and son of former pitcher Dave LaRoche, finally seems to have come into his own in 2006. After two below average seasons at first base--both offensively and defensively--LaRoche has put together a quality season and leads the Braves in home runs.

David Adam LaRoche was selected in the 29th round of the 2000 amateur draft by the Atlanta Braves out of Seminole State Community College. He was a pitching prospect when drafted, but the Braves converted him to offense. This looked like an intelligent switch in LaRoche's first professional appearance for Rookie League Danville, as he hit .308/.381/.507 in 201 at-bats, walking in just over 10 percent of all plate appearances.

For his efforts, LaRoche was promoted to High-A Myrtle Beach. As a 21-year old, LaRoche hit a paltry .251/.295/.361, with his walk rate dropping to 6 percent of all plate appearances while his strikeout rate climbed to almost 22 percent. He also only managed 7 home runs, matching the previous season's total in 271 additional at-bats.

LaRoche remained at Myrtle Beach for the start of the 2002 campaign. Upon repeating the level, he seemed to figure it out, and improved a great deal from the previous year's poor effort. LaRoche also managed to avoid falling apart once promoted to Double-A Greenville.

Team (League)      AB    AVG     OBP    SLG    SecA    XBH%   ISO    BB%    K%
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Myrtle Beach (A+) 250   .336    .406   .512    .276     31%  .176   9.5%  13.0%
Greenville (AA)   173   .289    .363   .410    .231     26%  .121   9.8%  19.7%
His Isolated Power and walk rates climbed back up to more respectable levels, and he was able to cut his strikeouts down significantly, from 21.6 to 13 percent. As soon as LaRoche was promoted to Double-A his numbers took a hit: his Triple-Crown rate stats took a fall--granted, they were somewhat inflated at Myrtle Beach due to the batting average--and his strikeout rate increased. The positive note is that his patience did not collapse as it seemingly did with the previous promotion.

At this point, Baseball Prospectus 2003 churned out a career prediction for LaRoche:

"LaRoche jumped over low-A to Myrtle Beach in 2001 and didn't do much. The Braves sent him back there in 2002, and he went crazy-go-nuts. It earned him a mid-season promotion to Double-A, where he lost a little power but kept his average up nicely. If he pans out? Oh, hell, we'll say it: Steve Cox."

That was not necessarily a compliment, considering Steve Cox had just managed a .254/.330/.396 line in his age 27 season the year before, although he did put together a .283/.379/.453 season his rookie year in 2000.

John Sickels rated LaRoche a C+ in his 2003 prospect book at this point, and had some positive things to say about his defensive abilities. At the same time, Sickels says, "I've never been a huge fan of these 'batting average and defense' first basemen."

There was certainly a lack of optimism surrounding LaRoche before the 2003 season, but he did his best to dispel those notions with a fine start to the year in Double-A. A .283/.381/.511 batting line along with a rising walk rate--13.1 percent of all plate appearances--and a homer every 18 at-bats or so. He was promoted to Triple-A Richmond, and continued to hit, although there was a drop in his power production. LaRoche hit a home run every 33 at-bats at Richmond, with a batting line of .295/.360/.466. Richmond has acted as a pitcher's park from 2003-2005, and it put a serious dent in homerun totals over that span of time, so LaRoche's drop in power is no real surprise, especially considering Greenville has been more inclined towards offense over the same time span. The only real negative was that his walk rate dropped back towards 9 percent once again.

Baseball Prospectus 2004 was more positive than the previous edition, but threw some caution out there as well:

"The junior college product hits loads of line drives, has a semblance of the strike zone, and plays a great defensive first base--all the skills of Doug Mientkiewicz, but without all those pesky consonants. This is the sort of player for whom 'gritty' and 'gamer' come up a lot in the scouting reports, and thus the sort that an organization can overrate, causing problems down the road."

LaRoche's age 24 PECOTA forecast was somewhat pessimistic, coming in at .249/.322/.412. Considering he had only spent half a season at Triple-A, those were reasonable expectations. It appears as if his defense survived another level and warranted mentioning in the comment though, which was certainly positive.

Baseball America ranked LaRoche as the #6 prospect in the Braves organization in their November 2003 rankings; considering he wasn't even on the list the previous season, that was quite a step up. Sickels was also more positive than the previous year, awarding a grade of B to LaRoche:

"LaRoche is best known for his defense; he's one of the best first basemen around, similar to Doug Mientkiewicz but with a stronger arm. He's emerged as a respectable hitter as well, hitting quite well the last two years. He won't be a big power guy, but he should hit for average, knock lots of doubles, and post non-awful on-base percentages."

Clearly LaRoche had defense down pat, and his bat had been improving. LaRoche would only play in four more games at Richmond before his promotion to the majors in 2004.

LaRoche did not start out as a full-time player, instead splitting time with Julio Franco at first base. Franco had hit .369/.447/.528 in 195 at-bats against left-handed pitchers from 2001-2003, so the platoon made sense, even if Franco's sample was small. Franco managed a .306/.368/.403 line against southpaws in 2004, while LaRoche banged out a .281/.327/.492 line against right-handers. LaRoche did manage to put together a better season than PECOTA suggested, but he was also allowed to avoid lefties almost entirely in the process.

Baseball Prospectus 2005 deemed LaRoche platoon worthy, and his PECOTA projection was a much more promising .270/.341/.474, even though that is somewhat low for first basemen:

"LaRoche probably provided a bit more power than we should expect from him in the future…In terms of usefulness, I expect he'll wind up a little north of Travis Lee, minus the hype. He's a suitable left-handed half of a first-base platoon."

For contextual purposes, Travis Lee still had some semblance of usefulness after the 2003 season, hitting .275/.348/.459 with plus defense, so that isn't quite as demeaning as it could be interpreted to be in the here and now.

The platoon was in effect once again in 2005, but due to a few more awful at-bats against lefty pitching than the year before, LaRoche's season line was only .259/.320/.455. He did manage .268/.330/.474 against right-handers though. His walk rate was consistent with the previous year, slightly increasing to 7.8 from 7.6 percent, and his home run power increased a smidge as well. He had also cut down on his strikeouts from almost 22 percent down to 17. The drop was mostly in BABIP, as LaRoche fell to .282 down from .330.

In 2006, LaRoche has increased his walk rate to over 10 percent while increasing his power significantly. His BABIP is also at a more respectable .302, which helped alleviate some of the batting average problems from the previous year. There's no reason to believe he cannot continue this production either, as there is nothing seemingly amiss in his batted-ball data:

YEAR     PA      FB%     GB%    LINEDR%   POPUP%    HR/F%
---------------------------------------------------------
2004    356    30.3%   45.7%    19.2%      6.7%     15.3%
2005    502    32.8%   44.4%    21.1%      5.6%     15.9%
2006    427    38.5%   35.9%    21.1%      3.8%     21.7%
He has managed to cut down on his groundballs and pop-ups significantly while increasing his flyballs and his home run frequency. His high groundball percentage from 2004 certainly helps to explain the .330 BABIP somewhat, which places 2005 into perspective as more of an off year than we may have originally guessed, since he really was not regressing to a true performance level.

If his 2006 season is more in line with his performance level than his previous seasons, than it may be time for older brother Adam to start to receive some of the adulation that has been pushed towards the younger Andy for the past few years. He's even managed a .274/.338/.534 line against southpaws on the season. The data suggests that LaRoche can escape the Steve Cox, Travis Lee and even Doug Mientkiewicz comparisons, which certainly has to make Braves fans hopeful for his future.

Marc Normandin is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc's other articles.

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