I have a feeling that no matter what Adam LaRoche does as a Washington National—assuming the obvious happens and he signs with the team—there is going to be a fairly loud minority saying, “Yeah, but he’s no Adam Dunn.”
And they’ll be right, of course. Their same first name aside, they are two very different players. And yes, one of them will help his new team more than the other. And that player is Adam LaRoche.
First, LaRoche is not just a better defender than Dunn, he is one of the best defensive first baseman in the National League. He is especially good at guarding the line and as a left-hander, his glove is just a little closer to the ball as it is thrown across the diamond, turning a few would-be hits into outs on bang-bang plays at first.
Second, most say that Dunn—who is a premier slugger—is in a different league offensively. But is he really? Home runs are just one way of measuring a hitter’s value to their club.
Let’s compare their 2010 seasons:
Batting Average / On-Base Percent / Slugging Average
Their base statistics are similar. Dunn hits more home runs and walks more often but LaRoche doesn’t strike out as much. Over the course of the season, Dunn got one base about one more time per week than LaRoche. Other than that, we’re looking at comparable hitters.
But let’s look at some other numbers that tell the real story:
Here are the two player’s 2010 stats against left-handers based on a full 162 games:
Dunn: .199-30-81, 214 strikeouts
LaRoche: .264-20-115, 153 strikeouts
When a lefty was on the mound, the Nationals might have just as well batted Dunn ninth. Oh, he would hit an occasional mistake a long way, but for the most part he was a hole in the lineup when facing left-handers.
LaRoche, on the other hand, actually hits lefties better. You won’t see opposing managers bring in a left-hander with LaRoche in the box; his batting average is five points higher against them.
And when it comes to clutch hitting, there just isn’t any comparison:
With runners in Scoring Position
With Men on Base
And here are their stats with two outs and runners in scoring position, again based on a full 162 games:
Dunn: .169-28-144, 238 strikeouts
LaRoche: .274-48-292, 178 strikeouts
Take a look at those numbers again. LaRoche is almost twice as likely to hit a home run or drive in a base runner with two out and runners in scoring position than is Dunn.
So who is more valuable than whom?
Adam Dunn is a great guy who hits long home runs. At first glance, his stats seem impressive but after you peel away the press clippings and ESPN highlights, it becomes obvious that he is a one dimensional player.
There is a reason that he had to wait until Spring Training to sign his last contract in 2008.
Adam LaRoche, on the other hand, doesn’t do any one thing extremely well but does everything well enough. He will cut down Ryan Zimmerman’s and Ian Desmond’s throwing errors on defense and will give the Nationals a second clutch bat in the middle of the order (for all the good things he does, Jason Werth batted only .139 with runners in scoring position and two out last season).
If the Nationals can make it happen, Adam LaRoche will do a wonderful job replacing Josh Willingham’s bat in the lineup. It’s not that he’s a better hitter. He just remains healthy. Over 162 games, Willingham has averaged .265-25-82 while LaRoche batted .271-26-93.
You just never see those kind of numbers next to Willingham’s name because he misses 30 or 40 games per season due to injury.
LaRoche is like Willingham in one way: you grow to appreciate him more when watching him play every day. And when all those balls in the dirt don’t end up down the right field line, and when all those runners on second and third don’t end the inning still standing on the bag, we’ll all begin to appreciate Adam LaRoche a little more.
Perhaps we might even decide that the two year contract wasn’t long enough.