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July 24, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Buddy, Can You Spare a LaRoche?

by Marc Normandin

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If you're looking for a first baseman, Adam LaRoche may not be the most appealing fantasy option that comes to mind. However, he was an above-average first baseman last year, and for a time was above average via EqA in 2009 as well. A slump has dropped him down to .247/.329/.441 though, and the Pirates, desperate to get something in return and drop his contract, dealt him to the Red Sox, who needed a Mike Lowell insurance policy that would actually be able to cover for him. It's not guaranteed that LaRoche is going to play regularly, as Kevin Youkilis is the first baseman as long as Lowell remains in any game, but given how sketchy Lowell's health has been as of late, it would not be surprising to see LaRoche end up playing quite a bit. Today we will look at what we can expect from LaRoche going forward as a member of the Boston Red Sox.

Right off the bat, you would think that LaRoche will struggle a little more than he did out in Pittsburgh, mostly because the American League East is a much stronger division than the National League Central. Then again, he now has the very hitter-friendly Fenway Park as his new home, and he will get to visit Yankee Stadium 2 a few times as well. The park switch is a big deal, as PNC was neutral, but leaned a little more towards pitchers than hitters for lefties, as it did cut down on homers. While Fenway also cuts down on homers for left-handers, it gives a massive boost to doubles, providing roughly 10 percentage points more than any other park in the majors. LaRoche isn't a massive power kind of guy, he's more of a line-drive power hitter, so moving to a park that supports line-drive hitters could superficially make him a better lineup option.

It's not like LaRoche doesn't hit bombs, though, as his fly-ball rate is nearly 42 percent, and his HR/FB is 11.8. That's a bit below his career rate, so it wouldn't be shocking if we saw it increase as long as he gets playing time. PNC also has not seen many homers this year, with just 1.39 per game, while Fenway has 2.04 per game. According to Hit Tracker, the average distance of a homer at PNC in 2009 is 400.8 feet, whereas in Fenway it is 389 feet; you can thank all those balls that clear the Monster in left for that lowered average, as well as those shots that wrap around the Pesky Pole in right.

LaRoche has 12 homers this year, with an average distance of 404.4; given the short distances in right field, LaRoche could bump up his homer rate playing every day with his home games at Fenway. LaRoche has pulled eight of his 12 homers to right, with most of those coming in at significantly shorter distances than his furthest homers. He's actually lost more distance from environmental effects in Pittsburgh than he has gained, so getting out of the Steel City is a good thing for him. Oddly enough, he's hit much better at home than on the road, but given PNC's tendencies that strikes me as a statistical blip-both samples are for roughly 160 at-bats.

LaRoche is in his age-29 season, so no one is treating his recent slump as if it is the end of his time as a productive player. He's been considered a streaky hitter for much of his career, which is why people are so torn over him-sometimes he hits very well, and people think he has regained the magic he had with the Braves, and other times he looks like he couldn't get a hit if they served the ball to him on a tee. Just look at his production this season for some evidence of this trend, as he hit .269/.352/.564 in April, .200/.303/.347 in May, .344/.423/.559 in June, and then back down again in July with a .138/.167/.241 showing. If only there was a real pattern you could follow there, as LaRoche would be a great first baseman to start for three months, non-consecutively. In rotisserie leagues, you don't care if LaRoche slugs .220 one month as long as he evens it out somewhere down the line and finishes with a solid line, but in head-to-head leagues the back and forth can get annoying given you are scored on week-to-week performance.

This consistent inconsistency is reflected in his PECOTA forecast, as LaRoche's pre-season weighted mean sat at .271/.354/.489, with a 90th-percentile of .296/.383/.555 and a 10th percentile of .235/.311/.393. With the exception of his 10th-percentile forecast, though, he's an average or above-average first baseman in every scenario. His updated PECOTA forecast has him at .252/.337/.454 the rest of the way, though that was in Pittsburgh; I would bump that up a bit to account for Fenway, as I like what a hitter like LaRoche can do there despite the switch in league difficulty.

With the Red Sox being very cautious about Mike Lowell-they reportedly talked to him about his health before they went ahead and made any deals, and given they acquired LaRoche and then Chris Duncan, you have to think that privately, Lowell is not full of confidence-there is a good chance LaRoche will see a good-sized chunk of playing time. The only other inhibitor to his getting at-bats are his platoon splits, as LaRoche hits right-handers much better than lefties (.280/.355/.517 against RHPs and .263/.323/.467 against LHPs from 2006-2008, as well as .257/.360/.472 and .226/.255/.377 this year). His split has been much more extreme this season, which could be a blip given his relative success against them in the past, but the Red Sox also have right-handed bench players such as Rocco Baldelli that could steal some playing time if they deem the split a problem.

LaRoche is not a major fantasy anchor for your team, but he is the kind of player that, if acquired, can help you balance your roster out a bit. People are down on him now, especially since he was traded into what looks like an insurance policy situation, but if given the playing time, he may be a helpful surprise. He's worth a look in AL-only leagues for sure, and if you're weak at first base or a corner/utility spot, you should consider acquiring him on the cheap before he officially gets the nod as the new Red Sox first baseman.

Related Content:  A's,  Adam Laroche

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