In 2011, the Chicago White Sox signed a free agent first baseman named Adam who had played the previous season with the Washington Nationals. His first season as a White Sox, which was mired by injuries, saw career lows in home runs, RBIs, batting average and pretty much every other offensive category. His OPS dropped a preposterous 323 points from his previous season.
In 2015, the White Sox tried again with a free agent first baseman from Washington named Adam. This time around also saw an injury-plagued season and tremendous drops in offensive statistics including a horrible-in-its-own-right drop of 183 in OPS from his previous season.
The first Adam referred to is, of course, Adam Dunn. The second is current White Sox designated hitter/first baseman Adam LaRoche. In 2011, the White Sox won 79 games, not helped much by their prize free agent signing. In 2015, the White Sox won 76, again finishing far from a playoff berth. This comparison is just a bizarre case of coincidence, but if the strange similarities continue, can LaRoche be the key for a White Sox resurgence in 2016?
In 2012, a now 32 year old Dunn bounced back to an .800 OPS, hit 41 home runs and 96 RBIs. Behind his bounce-back, the White Sox won 85 games, finishing just short of a division crown. Adam LaRoche will begin the 2016 season as a 36 year old, but is the same bounce-back possible? The White Sox seem to be pinning their hopes to LaRoche being their everyday designated hitter, but will need a Dunn-like statistical increase for that move to pay off.
There are many possible reasons for LaRoche’s numbers falling off. The reason that the White Sox are probably hoping for is that an injury-filled season was the root cause. LaRoche had issues with his knee, and there are some reports that they were bothering him well before he missed any time. LaRoche has been quoted as saying he feels fully healthy and credits a CrossFit regimen to getting the knee back up to full strength.
Another reason may be a factor beyond control – age. LaRoche saw his strikeout rate jump from 18.4 percent in 2014 to 27.4 in 2015. He also saw his walk rate drop from nearly 14 percent to just above 10. These can be signs of decline in batting eye or bat speed. His whiff rate also jumped three percent including a three percent jump on pitches outside the zone (all numbers courtesy of BaseballSavant.com). These trends again could be attributed to the injuries but there’s a reason many hitters start to fade as the years go by.
One way to fight the downside of age attrition is to platoon a player to only take advantage of their strengths. LaRoche has been slowly separating his lefty/righty splits in the last few years.[table “” not found /]
LaRoche had a bad year against right handed pitchers, but nowhere near as bad as he did against left handed. The issue in 2015 was that there wasn’t a great alternative; the White Sox lineup was…offensively challenged. In this offseason, there still appears to be a great alternative. The often harped idea of bringing in another outfielder to replace Avisail Garcia would allow Garcia to be that platoon partner for LaRoche. Garcia did not have a great year but he did hit .293/.353/.407 against left handed pitchers. If the White Sox are still committed to see if there is growth in Garcia’s game, doing it with less of an impact on the everyday lineup could be a good option. The fact that it can knock two birds out with one stone makes it an even better idea.
Another option for LaRoche would be playing more in the field. Going back to Adam Dunn for a moment, he was often quoted that it was difficult moving from an everyday all-around player to the designated hitter role. LaRoche may have had the same issues last season, and he spoke with CSN’s Dan Hayes on the topic.
Adam LaRoche thinks he has a much better idea how to handle being a DH this year. Said last year “sucked” and was a mental drain. #WhiteSox
— Dan Hayes (@CSNHayes) February 21, 2016
Judging with only a single season as a sample size, LaRoche may have had a point. He hit .238/.309/.438 as a first baseman in 2015 compared to .186/.279/.281 as a designated hitter. Further argument for the idea of giving LaRoche more field time were Jose Abreu’s splits (.285/.351/.482 as 1B, .315/.379/.531 as DH). 2015 only being Abreu’s second season in the MLB, it’s difficult to use these figures to judge, and I am not sure if his Cuban statistics are readily available, but the numbers seem pertinent. Abreu was a slightly better hitter as a first baseman in 2014 than designated hitter but the stats were essentially even. LaRoche, like Dunn before him, was an everyday fielder for the length of his career and the switch has to be jarring.
There were surprisingly only five teams in 2015 that accumulated greater than a zero bWAR from the DH position (Edwin Encarnacion in Toronto, Nelson Cruz in Seattle, Alex Rodriguez in New York, David Ortiz in Boston and Kendrys Morales in Kansas City). Of course, this is with no defensive WAR added in but the state of the designated hitter isn’t great across the league. The Chicago White Sox had the fourth worst bWAR (-1.5) in the league and still need help to even get to replacement level. Right now, as the team stands Adam LaRoche will again be the Opening Day DH and the team will have to hope that one or more of these propsed options will be successful. The entire lineup has been revamped offensively, so it could be a “rising tide lifts all ships” scenario. In LaRoche’s peak years for the Washington Nationals he was protected in the lineup by Ian Desmond (ironically, as the White Sox were a key suitor of the shortstop this offseason). Last season, LaRoche’s most common “protector” was ironically Avi Garcia. Maybe that two birds with one stone idea should be the chosen option.