Few Washington Nationals faced as many questions entering this season as Adam LaRoche. The first baseman had the least productive non-injured season of his career in 2013. As he struggled to keep up his strength — and consequently his offensive production — his batting average flirted near his dropping weight.
At 34, he entered this season as the second-oldest hitter in the lineup and facing the prospect of occasionally sitting against tough left-handed pitchers so Ryan Zimmerman could gain experience at first base.
On opening day against the New York Mets, LaRoche batted seventh.
As injuries to key hitters mounted, LaRoche inched up to the cleanup spot. He has been the Nationals’ most consistent hitter not named Anthony Rendon, surprising because LaRoche typically is a slow starter. Instead, he broke his career-best mark for hits the first month of the season with 29. He is second among regulars with a .312 batting average and first with a .907 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage. He looks like a different hitter from last year, more reminiscent of the strong season he enjoyed in 2012.
“It feels good,” said LaRoche, who is expected back Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies after resting a sore quadriceps muscle Wednesday. “It’s still real early. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. I’ve still got a lot of work to do. But regardless of what you did the year before, it’s always nice to get off to a good start. The last thing guys want to do is get off in a hole and kind of spend two, three, six months digging back out, which, unfortunately, I’ve been in a lot in my career.”
With Bryce Harper, Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos out because of hand injuries, the Nationals have needed LaRoche more than ever. And LaRoche has delivered, thanks to adjustments he made to his swing in spring training and to his ability to maintain his weight. Despite the injuries, the Nationals have scored the sixth-most runs in baseball, in part, because of LaRoche, who has hit four home runs and driven in 17 .
“He’s really balanced out the lineup,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “It’s been great. I tell you: This game is tough. It’ll beat you down. And when it starts to steamroll sometimes, it’s hard to stop. Sometimes you need a winter off to regroup and get back to who you are. You can’t figure these things out. He’s been great. I would say he’s been very similar to a majority of his other seasons. It’s good to see.”
LaRoche was healthy last season, other than bone chips in his throwing arm that emerged in the final series and were removed over the winter. Over his career, LaRoche has been a streaky hitter and it doomed him last season.
He finished with a .237 batting average, .332 on-base percentage and .403 slugging percentage , 20 home runs and a career-low .735 OPS. His plunging weight didn’t help.
Since 2006, LaRoche has taken medication to combat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder . Each year is a struggle to keep weight on, but last summer for LaRoche was particularly difficult because the medicine killed his appetite. Most players lose weight during the season, particularly the summer months, and LaRoche dropped to 190 pounds, his weight in college and about 20 pounds less than he would prefer. He even stopped taking batting practice before games out of fear of shedding more pounds.
He is listed at 205 pounds. He felt better after he switched his medication after the all-star break last season and is sticking with the newer one. Before games, he is lifting weights, which he used to do after games, and believes it is helping keep his strength up. The true test, however, will be this summer.
“I feel really good,” LaRoche said. “I’m keeping the weight on. Of course, it hasn’t gotten hot yet but we’ll see.”
LaRoche has come to the plate with a better approach and improved mechanics. During spring training, LaRoche and hitting coach Rick Schu looked over video of his 2013 at-bats and noticed that he was moving his head too much as he swung and landing too forcefully on his lead foot.
“He was getting down hard because he was late and jumping,” Schu said. “Now he’s down soft and early and his head stays stiller that way.”
To combat both problems, LaRoche went to the other extreme in the batting cages and during batting practice, which was awkward at first. He keeps his head still, starts his swing earlier and lands more softly on his front foot. With a less rushed swing and an unmoving head, LaRoche can better identify pitches and react.
“I know in the game with some adrenaline it’s going to move a little bit more and the front foot is going to be a little bit harder, a little bit longer stride,” he said. “But I try to exaggerate that to cut back as much as possible.”
As a result, LaRoche is better able to hit balls to all fields, which Manager Matt Williams has said will be a key to his success. Last year, 33 of LaRoche’s 121 hits were to left field. This season, 10 of his 29 hits were in that direction, including a walkoff single to left on April 23.
LaRoche’s plate discipline has also improved. Through the end of April, he has swung at 18.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, according to FanGraphs.com, far below his career average of 25.9 percent and his 26 percent rate last season. He is averaging 4.32 pitches per plate appearance, better than his career mark of 3.92 pitches. He has drawn nearly as many walks (16) as he has struck out (21 ).
“A little more of having a plan and not going up and just kind of flailing away,” LaRoche said. “Going up with a little bit of a game plan. And if [the pitcher] happens to leave something up, a good pitch to hit early, great. If not, be patient in there and wait for it.”
Despite his encouraging April, LaRoche believes there is still room for more. As he continues to hone his timing, he thinks he will be able to pull more balls for power.
“There are certain pitches I’m chasing that I need to be a little more patient with or pitches in the zone I’m fouling off,” he said. “That is part of the game but I know when I’m really, really locked in those pitches are being driven. I can’t say that I feel bad by any means because I do feel good and comfortable.”