“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.
LaRoche prepares himself for throws by standing with a low base. If a throw is wide left or right, he can slide his back foot along the bag, buying perhaps another 15 inches in either direction. His glove not only prevents infielder errors, but helps pitchers. “By making that play you may have saved the pitcher 15 extra pitches and [let him] go out there in the eighth or the seventh,” he said.
There are two variations of bouncing throws: the short hop, the quick and easier bounce; and the in-between hop, the harder version which forces the first baseman to step out toward the throw and stab at it. Espinosa said LaRoche is most impressive when he nabs the in-between hops. “He picks them all the time,” Espinosa said.
With the advent and development of advanced baseball statistics, there are tangible ways to measure LaRoche’s defensive impact beyond scouting reports. LaRoche finished second in the NL last season with a .995 fielding percentage and committed seven errors, but both numbers describe little.
Last season, according to John Dewan, author of the Fielding Bible and creator of the defensive runs saved metric, LaRoche ranked among the top 10 first basemen with his ability to handle difficult throws, and saved two runs with scoops. Casey Kotchman led the majors with four runs saved with picks. But to the Nationals, the confidence instilled by LaRoche helps prevent more mistakes.
“It’s not only the ones he picks but the ones he doesn’t pick, because our minds relax,” Desmond said. “I can just throw it. It frees you up as opposed to someone that stands over there and wants you to hit them in the chest every time.”
When LaRoche played first base for the Atlanta Braves while battling attention deficit disorder early in his career, he actually cost his teams 13 runs and 11 runs, respectively, in 2005 and 2006. The biggest improvement in LaRoche’s game, Dewan said, was his improved range. Overall, LaRoche saved eight more runs last year than the average first baseman, the fourth-best mark in the majors. “He is making a lot more plays than he was making before,” Dewan said.
When LaRoche does falter at first base, he fears he looks lazy to the outside observer. His relaxed demeanor and deliberate movements, however, are what help him in difficult situations.
“I just kinda have a different style when it comes to groundballs,” he said. “I’m not in a real squatted position. I’m more kinda upright and come in and trust my hands. It’s the way I’ve always done it and it’s worked and I’ve never had to change that. Hitting, I’ve gone through some minor tweaks and stuff but on defense, I don’t know if I’ve ever done anything different.”