I have seen some rejoicing by Nats fans over Adam LaRoche’s new deal with the team. While two years at roughly eight million dollars each seems reasonable for him, I am not convinced he is as good an upgrade at first base as he is often regarded.
Two points stand in his favor: when compared to the departing Adam Dunn, LaRoche is not an atrocious fielder, and he hits for a decent average.
The second point is not really much of a point because LaRoche has been much worse at reaching base than Dunn throughout his career. In addition, swapping the two is more or less choosing between ten extra home runs or ten extra doubles, except the doubles guy doesn’t walk as much.
Both players have at least 3,800 plate appearances to their name (Dunn has over 6,000), so that’s enough of a sample size to simply be able to look at the two stats side by side. LaRoche’s .271 career average is 21 points higher than Dunn’s, but his OBP is .339 (42 points lower than Dunn). So, while LaRoche has been more likely to make contact with the ball and get on base that way, Dunn has been better overall at not making an out.
LaRoche has walked a little more than nine percent of the time in his career, a figure that spiked to around 10 percent when he was the only good hitter on the Pirates for almost three years. Dunn’s walk rate was a career-low 11.9 percent in 2010 though he has never really had any significant protection in a lineup. Dunn has five seasons of 100 or more unintentional walks. LaRoche only managed 60 walks twice in parts of seven seasons.
A lot of people might site Adam Dunn as someone who would have been pitched around a lot whereas Adam LaRoche probably would not have been. Both played for some bad teams. If pitchers were afraid of either of these hitters, there was often no reason to pitch to them. While LaRoche did tend to see a slightly higher percentage of pitches in the zone, he also tended to swing at more pitches out of the zone.
Percentage of pitches in strike zone from 2004 to 2010:
LaRoche: 56.4, 50.7, 50.7, 48.1, 49.9, 45.8, 44.8
Dunn: 51.9, 49.3, 48.7, 47.3, 45.5, 45.6, 41.4
For his career, LaRoche has seen 48.8 percent of his pitches in the zone. Dunn has seen 47.1 percent of his. This is not a significant enough difference to account for a difference of roughly eight percent in their career walk rates. So, I would conclude that both hitters have been pitched around a bit due to spending time on bad teams.
While Dunn clearly has the better eye, both strike out plenty. Last year, for the Diamondbacks, LaRoche struck out 172 times. Remind you of anyone?
As we know, making contact, even if it isn’t as likely to be a home run, still leaves open the possibility of making a productive out. So we cannot tip the scales entirely in Dunn’s favor. If the Nationals are able to get Nyjer Morgan, Ian Desmond, and Ryan Zimmerman on base, Adam LaRoche may find himself in a lot of situations where he just needs a fly ball or a grounder to the right side.
So, while LaRoche has been better at making contact throughout his career, he hit only one point higher than Dunn in 2010. I do believe .260 was probably Dunn’s ceiling (and I put him down at .250 or so in 2011) and .261 is probably something of an off-year for LaRoche (I’d put him around .275) but this isn’t Ichiro vs. Andruw Jones.
Power-wise, the two just aren’t in the same class. Adam Dunn averaged just over 39 home runs over the past five years. LaRoche averaged just over 25. Both players were in their prime (they were born three days apart), and the difference in home ballparks probably can’t account for the entire fourteen home run difference.
Fangraphs tells me Adam Dunn is actually faster than Adam LaRoche. Neither should be expected to steal any non-defensive-indifference bases, but perhaps LaRoche is going to clog the bases even more than Dunn has. This is, perhaps, a minor complaint since both were brought in with the task of driving in Nyjer Morgan and Ian Desmond, not stealing bases.
The best thing about signing Adam LaRoche is his defense. Is that defense enough to outweigh the decline in offense? I guess we’ll have to see how 2011 pans out. In 2010, LaRoche’s defense was worth about 8 runs more than Dunn’s overall. His WAR was still lower, however.
The 2011 Washington Nationals look like an improved team when compared with their 2010 counterpart. Zimmerman-Werth-LaRoche is a nice trio for the middle of the lineup, and this team should finally crack the 70-win mark at least. I guess we can say that, if Dunn had to be lost (I don’t know that he did), LaRoche is not a horrible choice to replace him. But we shouldn’t be considering him an upgrade overall.