Adam LaRoche’s game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth inning in Wednesday’s 5-4 walkoff capped not only another comeback victory but provided another encouraging sign that the Nationals’ cleanup hitter is locked in at the plate and rebounding from last season. LaRoche finished the night with three hits and raised his early-season batting average to a team-leading .315. Through 20 games, he also has a .419 on-base percentage and a .479 slugging percentage, adding up to a Nationals-best .898 OPS.
LaRoche’s opposite-field hit exemplified why he feels comfortable at the plate. After a rough 2013 season in which he posted some career lows for a non-injury season, he has begun this season completely different. He is seeing the ball better, his timing is improved and, to borrow a baseball phrase, he is staying on the ball.
“When I struggle, I roll over a lot of balls,” LaRoche said. “A lot of groundballs to the right side. If I can stay short and soft, and almost concede the home run until it really feels good, that’s when I’m going to be in a lot better position.” Added Manager Matt Williams: “That’s the key for him to have success and driving runs in.”
A closer look at LaRoche’s batted balls so far this season shows that he has sprayed singles all over the field. He may be driving the ball with less power to his pull side, which he hopes to do more when he feels completely locked in, but he has still driven in 12 runs. Although he has a cluster of groundouts to the right side, most of his hits to the left side have been line drives, proof that he is still hitting the ball hard, even to that side of the field.
For comparison, all of his hits in 2013:
But perhaps the most impressive statistic about LaRoche so far this season isn’t the hits to the opposite field but that he has nearly as many walks (13) as he does strikeouts (16). Although it is a small sample size, he is swinging at only 22.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, according to FanGraphs.com, instead of 26 percent last season. He has been more judicious and effective when he does swing; he has made contact on 89.2 percent of pitches he swings at inside the strike zone compared to 85.9 percent last season.
“I feel good,” LaRoche said. “I just feel a little bit more quiet at the plate. Really worked on that this spring: trying to stay soft and not have my head moving around a whole lot. Feels good right now. It’s always easier when guys are hitting around you. That kind of thing can be contagious.”
LaRoche’s hot-hitting has helped the Nationals’ offense stay productive during the absences of Wilson Ramos (the opening day cleanup hitter) and Ryan Zimmerman. It is a much-repeated statistic about LaRoche, but throughout his 11-year career he has normally been a slow starter, with the exceptions of 2012 and now this season. His career slash line in the first month of the season is .222/.316/.397. Over the previous ten seasons, he averaged 10 walks in the first month of the season. With a hot April, he is already pushing past that production level.
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