Adam LaRoche carries a plan into every at-bat, and the endpoint rarely consists of tossing his bat toward the dugout and ambling to first base. He intends to inflict damage at the plate. He views driving in runs as the primary job of a cleanup hitter. If he misses a pitch to hit but later ends up drawing a walk, he feels chagrin.
“Walking’s one of those things, it’s the last thing that crosses my mind until it happens,” LaRoche said.
Walks have happened to LaRoche more than ever this season, and it has led to perhaps the best season of his career. At 34, LaRoche unwittingly changed himself as a hitter. He is walking more and striking out less than he ever has in his first 10 seasons, an unintentional side effect of a mechanical adjustment. Although LaRoche’s slugging matches his career average, he’s hitting a career-best .289 with a .393 on-base percentage, 56 points better than his career mark.
“I don’t know what that is,” LaRoche said.
LaRoche’s production derives from increasing walks and decreasing strikeouts. Entering this season, LaRoche struck out in 22.2 percent of his at-bats and drew walks in 9.8 percent of them. He walked once for every 2.25 strikeouts.
This season, with no warning from recent seasons, the numbers have changed drastically. In 303 plate appearances, LaRoche has 46 walks and 55 strikeouts. His strikeout rate has dropped to 18.2 percent while his walk rate has shot up by more than a third, to 15.2 percent.
LaRoche is swinging at 22.5 percent of pitches he sees outside the strike zone, a little lower than his career total, but not hugely. When he has swung at a pitch in the zone, LaRoche has made contact better than 90 percent of the time for the first time in his career; usually he’s in the high 80s. Overall, his 82.1 contact rate is the highest of his career by a pretty significant amount.
The increased walks and decreased strikeouts are the combined result of several small factors: He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone, and when he does swing – either at a ball or a strike – he’s making contact more often. That’s a good way to not strike out, lengthen at-bats and draw more walks.
LaRoche’s improved contact rate can be explained. At the beginning of this season, LaRoche made a minor alteration to his swing.
“From watching, you probably can’t tell,” LaRoche said. “It’s really not noticeable. But I can tell.”
When he started his swing in the past, LaRoche used a long stride from his open stance, leaning toward to the plate with his entire body. This year, LaRoche has used a shorter, more controlled stride, which has allowed him to recognize pitchers better.
“It lessens the movement of your head,” LaRoche said. “When your head moves, your eyes move. When your eyes move, the ball moves. A lot of times when we struggle, our head’s moving a foot as we stride to the ball. That just makes the ball dance all over the place. You can see the ball and be a little more selective.”
LaRoche’s new kind of production, which includes the seventh-best on-base percentage of his career, has come a year after one of his most disappointing seasons. As he struggled to maintain his weight, LaRoche hit .237/.332/.403 in 2013. Along with his shorter stride, LaRoche has worked hard to keep weight on. One National League scout said LaRoche looks stouter now than he has in years.
LaRoche changed his routine. He lifts weights before games rather than after. He drinks a protein shake after every game. Teammates take batting practice on the field, under the sweltering sun, where “you can feel the pounds melting off you,” LaRoche said. LaRoche swings in the batting cage adjacent to the tunnel connecting their clubhouse to the dugout.
“Cage-wise, I think it can actually be better inside, because you’re not worried about how far the ball goes,” LaRoche said. “You’re not trying to lift. You’re not trying to yank the ball. You’re in a box. That can actually be healthy.”
LaRoche is not exactly sure what to make of his newfound proclivity for walks.
“You have at-bats where the guy is nasty, you’re not seeing it real good, you fight off some pitches and walk,” LaRoche said. “That’s a success. Other at-bats, you may get one or two pitches right there, and you foul them off and walk. You feel like you should have done some damage. Overall, I’ll call it a draw.”