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October 21, 2007

Prospectus Q&A

Dave LaRoche

by David Laurila

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While he had a mid-90s fastball when he was an All-Star closer for the Indians and Angels, a much slower pitch comes to mind when many people think of Dave LaRoche. A flame-throwing left-hander for most of his 14 years in the big leagues (1970-1983), LaRoche reinvented himself when he joined the Yankees late in his career, often throwing a pitch that arced 20 feet in the air. The father of two big leaguers--Adam and Andy--LaRoche is now a pitching coach for the Blue Jays' Double-A affiliate, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

David talked to LaRoche about attacking hitters, dominating Reggie Jackson and, of course, the LaLob.

Baseball Prospectus: You were a pretty good big league pitcher in your day. How did you get guys out?

Dave LaRoche: Most of my career I was a closer, a short man, and mostly I was aggressive. When I went out there it would be late in the game, so I'd try to go at hitters with my best stuff. For me, that was a fastball, and I also threw a slider. Early in my career I also threw some forkballs, and late in my career I threw the LaLob.

BP: But you basically attacked hitters with your fastball?

DL: Yes, it was mostly, "Here it comes. It's just you and me." I threw a lot of high fastballs, and some people said it was a sneaky fastball.

BP: You had an interesting big league debut. Can you tell us what happened?

DL: It was the 16th inning, against the Red Sox, in Anaheim, and I was warming up when Lefty Phillips, our manager, walked out to the mound. There were two on, and two out, and Yaz [Carl Yastrzemski] was up. Lefty called down, and all of a sudden I was in the game. Joe Azcue was catching, the count went to 3-2, and Yaz fouled the next pitch off. Then Joe called for a slider, and I had never thrown a slider on 3-2 in the minor leagues; you just didn't do that back then. But he called it, and I remember thinking, "If he has nerve enough to call it, I better have nerve enough to throw it." So I did, and Yaz grounded out to second base. We scored in the bottom half, so I had thrown a third of an inning to get my first win.

BP: The hitter you faced the most times in your career was Reggie Jackson, who went only 7-for-40 off you. Why were you so successful against Reggie?

DL: Well, one of the hits was a home run; I remember that. You know, he was just a free swinger, and I challenged him. He liked to hit the fastball, so I used to elevate it, letter high, and that's a tough pitch to get on top of. But it's not like I ever thought to myself, "Good, Reggie's up. I've got him." But it was always fun to face the great hitters, because it was a challenge. I used to face a lot of left-handed hitters, so I'd also face Yaz a lot, George Brett.

BP: Were you aware of the numbers you had in those match-ups?

DL: I didn't know. I remember coming to the ballpark with Jim Fregosi late in my career. We were riding in cab, in Kansas City, and he had the stats--that was kind of when they first started having all of the individual stats. Of course, now they have stats on everything, like how you do on Mother's Day in odd years. But anyway, Jim said, "I guess I know who I'll bring you in against tonight." I go, "Who's that?" He said, "Brett." Apparently I had gotten him out something like 28 times in a row, although it didn't feel it because I think in his first 20 at-bats against me he had about 15 hits. Or at least that's what it seemed like.

BP: How did you turn things around against Brett?

DL: I used to pitch him away, a lot of times with sliders, and he'd go that way and double to the left-field corner or up the gap. So finally I decided that I was just going to go after him, like I did against Reggie, and throw fastballs up and in and see what happened. After that, I started to have a lot of success against him. He was a gamer, and those were usually tough situations, so I used to really enjoy that. I never felt like I dominated anyone, though.

BP: You dominated Jim Rice, striking him out nine times in 17 at-bats. As he was a right-handed hitter, did you go after him the same way you did left-handers like Jackson and Brett?

DL: Yes. I might have thrown an occasional slider to him, but it was mostly high fastballs. When I pitched, I mostly threw in to lefties and away to righties, and I tried to throw a lot from the belt up. I threw a lot of riding fastballs.

BP: Did you go downstairs to change a hitter's eye-angle to set up your high stuff?

DL: Not really. I mean, I might have thrown some down, but it was mostly by accident. I guess maybe I did throw a few more pitches down to righties--down and away. But against lefties, I tried to stay above the belt, on the inside half, most of the time.

BP: You weren't aware of your numbers against specific hitters. Do you want the guys here to be aware of them?

DL: In the minor leagues we don't really have that; we just have the numbers against a certain team. But generally, I think it would be individual, because some people could handle it, while others couldn't and maybe would get overconfident. To me, especially with relievers, I just want them to go out there and be aggressive. Go out there and attack them with whatever your best pitches are.

BP: You're more of a pitch to your strengths kind of guy.

DL: I am. Sometimes I think we get too caught up in trying to pitch to a hitter's weaknesses. When he does that, I think a pitcher is more apt to make mistakes. You might want to show other things, but when your back is up against the wall you want to go with your strengths. A lot of times it's an either-or, with two pitches, but one thing you definitely don't want to do is get beat with your third-best pitch. If you do, that's not very smart on your part.

BP: How did you come to throw an eephus pitch, your LaLob?

DL: On a dare. When I used to warm up, I'd always be working on the spin of my curveball. It's a pitch I had used earlier, and had I stuck with it, I probably would have been a better pitcher than if I was just throwing a slider. But warming up, I'd start spinning my curve, and then I'd start spinning it higher. Then it became, "Hey, how high can you throw that and still throw a strike?"

BP: Did that come from a specific catcher?

DL: No, it came from the other pitchers in the bullpen. Of course, the bullpen coaches didn't want me throwing it. But I started getting pretty good at throwing it 20 feet in the air, and throwing it for strikes, so, kind of on a dare, I used it in a game. It was my last game with the Angels, at the end of 1980, and I came in during the second inning after the starter got knocked out and threw it five or six times. I got a couple of strikeouts with it, and a couple of other outs, so all of sudden I realized that it actually worked.

BP: Who was your manager at the time?

DL: It was Jim Fregosi, and he didn't say anything, but I got released after the season anyway. From there I hooked up with the Yankees, and in New York everything is magnified, so they wanted a name for (the pitch). And in New York, my role was more between a middle man and set-up guy, because they had Gossage. So I'd come in in the middle of a game, and it would kind of get the crowd fired up and the guys loosened up. I'd turn around to Nettles, Randolph, and Dent, and they'd all have their glove over their face so people couldn't see that they were laughing. But it was an effective pitch.

BP: How exactly did you throw the pitch? For instance, it sounds like you imparted spin on it.

DL: Yes, mine was a curveball spin. I don't know how much that helped, but I could throw it higher and get it to come straight down. It was a little like a looping curveball, but more straight up and straight down.

BP: How precise did you want to be regarding arc?

DL: I'm not sure. If I was 0-2, I might try to throw it a little higher. All I was trying to do was bounce it on home plate, or a little behind home plate. But I would have hitters--they'd foul it off, and then be like, "Just give me one more, just one more." Sometimes I would, and they'd pop it to center, or something.

BP: How often did you throw it multiple times to the same hitter?

DL: Well, Gorman Thomas is probably the big one. I came into a game to face him once with two on and two out, and Bob Lemon, who had just taken over the ball club, was the manager. He said, "Do you want to walk this guy?" Now, either Cecil Cooper or Ben Oglivie was on deck, and they were both good hitters, even though they were left-handed. Barry Foote was catching, and we just said that we'd throw him my curveballs, and if I walk him, so be it. I think I threw it to Gorman 12 out of 13 pitches, and he kept fouling them off. Finally, I struck him out.

BP: Was it really that long of an at-bat?

DL: It was. Then, I faced him again about a week later, and walked halfway to the plate and told him I'd give him a chance to get even. So I threw him about 13 in a row, and he finally jammed himself and hit a little looper over third for a hit. When he got to first, he stood there and stuck his tongue out at me.

BP: How much was the pitch a psychological weapon for you?

DL: Well, like I said, it started out as a lark, kind of. But then I found out how effective it was--how much it helped. I could follow it with a fastball, and talk about changing a hitter's eye-level, or the velocity-level. I remember the writers coming in and telling me that the LaLob was something like 34 miles per hour on the radar gun. After that, any fastball is going to look pretty hard.

BP: Giving the hitter something else to think about would be one of the biggest assets of the pitch.

DL: I remember facing Bobby Bonds once, and he told me beforehand that I'd never get him to swing at it, that there was no way that he was going to embarrass himself. So I got him 0-2, and I threw one--and it was close--and he took it. He just looked at me like, "See, I'm not going to swing at it." So I threw it again, and he swung and dribbled one to short. I just looked at him with a little smirk on my face, because he couldn't lay off two in a row.

BP: You were once quoted as saying that you'd probably get fired if one of your pitchers started throwing an eephus pitch. If something can be used effectively, do you feel that it's reasonable for people to view it as a bad thing?

DL: Here, most of the people we work with are young prospects. With me, throwing the pitch came late in my career, when I already had a feel for how to pitch and knew what I was doing. It was kind of like, "Okay, let me see if I can add this, and will it work." You don't want to take a young kid--you also need to have a really good feel for a curveball. A lot of young pitchers don't have that yet. There's so much more learning at this stage. We did have a pitcher earlier this year, Lee Gronkiewicz, who threw a couple in a game, but he's a little older and has been in Triple-A. We needed to keep his enthusiasm up, because he was a little bored and frustrated that he was back at this level, at Double-A. So that gave him something to kind of take his mind off of that; it kind of rubbed him up a little bit where he looked forward to coming to the ballpark again. So, at that point in time, with that particular guy, it made sense. He threw a couple, and even though he didn't get any strikes with it, it helped get him over the hump.

BP: So, throwing a so-called "trick pitch" can have a psychological impact on not only an opposing hitter, but on the pitcher himself?

DL: It happened to me, in New York, because for most of my career I had been a late-inning guy, and typically when I came in during non-"game on the line" situations, I struggled. So it helped me out mentally, where now I didn't mind pitching middle innings. That helped get me over the hump mentally as much as physically, and the pitch worked. I saw what it did for the team, and the fans started cheering for it; everyone was into the game.

BP: Your sons have pretty good arms. Why didn't you groom them to become pitchers?

DL: My oldest son actually did pitch in the minors for six or seven years, including the independent leagues. He was a left-handed pitcher. And Adam, they talked about him maybe being a first-round pick as a pitcher, but he didn't want to do it. They told him, maybe just to test him, "How about for two million dollars?" But Adam said he didn't want to do it; he wanted to hit. If he found out that he couldn't hit, then he'd try pitching. The Braves were the only team that really wanted to give him a chance to hit and see what he could do. For him, that was kind of a no-brainer, because as a left-handed pitcher he could probably get an opportunity in two or three years if it didn't work out as a hitter.

BP: Do you feel that he could have succeeded in pro ball as a pitcher, and would he have thrown the LaLob?

DL: Yes, I think he would have been successful as a pitcher. Would he have thrown the LaLob? I doubt it. Well, maybe at some point in his career. I guess that I did, so you never know.

BP: Like many left-handed pitchers, you had a reputation of being little off the wall. Do you have any good stories you can share with us?

DL: No, I'm not very good at talking about myself. Jeff Torborg tells a lot of stories about me, though. Of course, some of them are lies.

BP: Do you have any good Jeff Torborg stories?

DL: I played with Jeff, and he's one of the best catchers I ever threw to. One thing that stands out in my mind is the day he got traded over to the Angels, from the Dodgers. It was during spring training, and we were taking batting practice. But the first thing he wanted to do when he got there was come out to the outfield and talk to the pitchers. He wanted to know everything about us--not only how we pitched, but also whether we were married and what we liked to eat. After a while, somebody yelled out, "Jeff, your group is hitting; come on in." Jeff hollered back, "I've been taking BP for 10 years and it hasn't helped me yet, so missing one day isn't going to hurt me!" He just wanted to stay out there and get to know all of us pitchers. That really impressed me, because here was a guy who caught Koufax and Drysdale, and I had grown up a Dodgers fan, out in L.A.

BP: Growing up a Dodgers fan, were there any pitchers you wanted to emulate?

DL: Koufax. I didn't actually start off as a pitcher, though. I was an outfielder my first two years of pro ball. Halfway through my second year I started to do both, and I think that was part of why Adam wanted to hit. I sat down with him and said, "I'm with you, whatever you do, but my thoughts are that if you don't make it as a hitter, because you're left-handed, a lot of people will give you a chance as a pitcher. If you don't make it as a pitcher, not many people will go back and say, 'Let's see what he can do hitting.'"

BP: Any final thoughts?

DL: Family is very important in this game, because baseball can be a hard life. I've been fortunate in that I've been married to someone who has always been there for me, through all the travel and difficult times, like getting sent down because the team realized I had an option left. One piece of advice that I've given my sons is that there's nothing better than a good woman and nothing worse than a bad woman. I've been lucky.

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