LaRoche Reaches End of the Line With Pirates

When the Pirates shipped Jason Bay to the Boston Red Sox on July 31, 2008 as part of a three-team deal that also put Manny Ramirez in Dodger blue, Andy LaRoche was the centerpiece from Pittsburgh’s perspective. GM Neal Huntington also acquired reliever Craig Hansen, starter Bryan Morris and outfielder Brandon Moss, but the big get was the third baseman who ranked as Baseball America’s number 31 prospect prior to the ’08 season. Huntington, at a press conference to announce the Bay deal, lauded LaRoche’s “tremendous command of the strike zone for a young hitter” and his “quality power.” A career .295/.382/.517 minor league batter, LaRoche looked like he’d be an above-average regular at the very least, and perhaps even a franchise cornerstone.

This past Friday, Huntington booted LaRoche off the 40-man roster (along with Zach Duke and Delwyn Young) by designating him for assignment. Buried on the bench in the second half of 2010 by Pittsburgh’s new hot-shot third baseman, Pedro Alvarez, LaRoche was deemed not worth keeping around as a bench player in 2011 for the high six-figure salary he’d draw as a first-time arbitration-eligible player. What happened here?

For one thing, the strike-zone control that LaRoche displayed in the minors just hasn’t translated to the big leagues. The righty batter has drawn a walk in 9.2 percent of his career plate appearances, which is just a bit above the 8.5-8.9 percent MLB average over the past few years. His plate discipline stats indicate his decent, but hardly outstanding patience. He swung at 25.2% of pitches thrown out of the strike zone from 2007-2009, right around the major league average, and went fishing 29.4% this past year (29.3% MLB average). According to StatCorner, LaRoche took 35.7% of pitches for a strike in 2009 and 34.4% in 2010, well above the 31% MLB average. So, he has been ordinary when it comes to laying off junk pitches, and he takes more called strikes than most.

Before the 2008 season, BA said LaRoche had “plus raw power” and had the potential to hit in the middle of a lineup. Well, his career Isolated Power now stands at .113, and he has gone deep just 7.1% of the time that he hits a fly ball. Not that he hits a lot of flys – LaRoche has hit grounders nearly 49% of the time (44 percent MLB average).

With so-so walk rates and little thump, LaRoche’s bat has been 25 percent worse than the average major league hitter (75 wRC+) in over 1,200 plate appearances. One might look at his career .252 BABIP and see room for some improvement, and that’s likely true to some extent. But there’s reason to believe that LaRoche is a low BABIP hitter. He pops the ball up a lot – nearly 14%, while the MLB average is a little more than half of that. Those pop ups are near automatic outs. And while line drive rate might not be the most consistent stat, LaRoche’s career rate of liners hit (17.1%) is below the near 19% big league average.

Defensively, LaRoche has held his own – he’s got a career +1.7 UZR/150, and Sean Smith’s Total Zone rates him as slightly above-average as well. I know his defensive stats have been all over the place the past two years, but I’d be more inclined to trust the overall numbers.

While he’s a decent defender, the bat figures to remain ghastly. CHONE’s late August update pegged LaRoche’s offense as -11 runs below average per 150 games, with a .245/.325/.375 line. That looks downright robust compared to Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection – .232/.309/.355.

Overall, LaRoche contributed 1.2 Wins Above Replacement during his time as a Pirate. Hansen whose career has stalled due to a neck injury, has been a half-win below replacement. Moss, recently signed by the Phillies to a minor league deal, chipped in 0.2 WAR. So, that’s 0.9 WAR for the Pirates from the three big league players picked up in the trade, compared to the 6.1 WAR that Bay put up in Boston and the pair of compensation picks the Red Sox turned into outfielder Bryce Brentz and right-hander Brandon Workman. Mercifully, Bryan Morris pitched well between High-A and Double-A in 2010. He’s considered more of a second-tier arm, though, recently placing 14th in BA’s ranking of the top 20 Eastern League prospects, and he has a Tommy John surgery in his past.

In retrospect, it looks like the Pirates have little chance of breaking even on the Bay deal, due mostly to LaRoche’s non-development. I have to admit, I liked the trade at the time. Getting 5-6 years of team control over a top position prospect like LaRoche had the potential to give the Bucs a lot of surplus value. It certainly didn’t work out that way, however.

As the team and the would-be trade centerpiece parts ways, the Pirates hope to salvage some value from the deal through Morris, and LaRoche will look to revive his career elsewhere. Considering that he’ll come cheap, LaRoche isn’t a bad bench option. At this point, though, it’s hard to see a team giving the 27-year-old meaningful playing time.





A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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Heather
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Heather

As a person who just takes a momentary interest here and there in the Pirates, I must say, it appears (to my outside, passing perspective) that a larger than normal majority of their top prospects flame out or fail to measure up to their potential.

Has anybody questioned whether there is something wrong in their development system?

Puffy
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Puffy

There was supposed to be a regime change with Huntington and farm director Stark, who all came aboard after the 2008 season. At the time, Huntington referred to the farm system as “dysfunctional.” I’d also be curious to hear from Pirates fans where things stand today.

john sparrow
Guest

It certainly was dysfunctional, but Andy LaRoche had little to do with the Pirates farm system. He spent very little time there and did well in 2009. It’s unclear how much his back injuries affected him (there’s also the hand, maybe thumb, injury while with the Dodgers, just before he came to Pittsburgh…

The jury’s still out on the current development system. Certainly, Owens and Morris appear to have taken forward steps. Justin Wilson has done quite well, for someone with very little expert backing. Guys like McPherson/Leach have taken steps forward. Jeff Locke has resurrected his falling stock, and guys like Presley have improved at higher levels. Lambo seems to have done OK since coming over, regaining some value on his rapidly plummeting prospect status. Neil Walker, Jose Tabata have made strides and had promising rookie seasons. While it’s still open to question, Pirates fans have some reasons to be excited.