“He literally says, ‘Just throw it in the area and I’ll get it,’ ” shortstop Ian Desmond said. Added second baseman Danny Espinosa: “He’s smooth. It allows your infielders to not be so conscious of making the perfect throw. Sometimes when you try to make the perfect throw, you make a bad throw.”
Among the reasons the Nationals re-signed power-hitting LaRoche to a two-year, $24 million contract this winter was his defense. Even though he is slowly snapping out of his trademark season-starting offensive slump, LaRoche, 33, hasn’t let it carry over to his defense.
“He’s got extremely soft hands and extremely good feet, and those are two skills that a good defender has to have,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s got a very accurate throwing arm and as far as picking balls, he’s always in a good position to pick balls. That’s not an accident.”
In some ways, LaRoche hasn’t only become proficient at picking, but at everyday physics. On each throw, he rapidly factors the tendencies of every infielder, their arm slot and the resulting effect on the bounce, the force with which they threw it and whether the ball will hit grass or dirt. LaRoche then makes his best educated guess where the ball could wind up, and adjusts accordingly.
“You have to trust your eyes and be like, ‘I’ve seen this throw a lot of times and I know what it does and I’ll put my glove here and go through it,’ ” he said.
LaRoche has distinct clues on how to handle throws from each of his regular infield partners. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman uses different arm slots — sidearm, three-quarters and over the top — and LaRoche responds to each differently. As Zimmerman battled a hurt throwing shoulder last season and has struggled through seven throwing errors following this winter’s shoulder surgery, LaRoche has been a valuable security blanket.
“He does a little bit of everything,” Zimmerman said. “Obviously, picking. But his overall defense, fielding groundballs, starting double plays. He never panics.”
Desmond throws over the top and with so much force that in LaRoche’s eyes the bounces will always be hard, true and straight, so he simply adjusts to the height of the bounce. Espinosa, who has perhaps the team’s strongest infield arm, poses only one challenge: the angle of his position. LaRoche can’t see the incoming base runner and sometimes Espinosa has to throw across his body or sidearm, which means if the ball bounces it will do so differently because of the angle and spin.