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Prospect Retrospective: The career of Adam LaRoche

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Adam LaRoche
Adam LaRoche
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago White Sox first baseman Adam LaRoche is in the news recently, retiring from the game after 15 years due to a controversy over the frequent presence of his young son in the White Sox clubhouse. I don't really care to comment on that issue, but it is a good time to review LaRoche's career, given that the player he became was a little different than the player he originally projected to be.

LaRoche was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 29th round in 2000 from Seminole State Community College in Oklahoma. The son of former major league pitcher Dave LaRoche, Adam attended high school in Fort Scott, Kansas, and played his freshman year at Fort Scott Community College before transferring to Seminole State. Sent to Danville in the Appalachian League for his pro debut, he hit a solid .308/.381/.507 in 201 at-bats.

In 2001 he moved up to Myrtle Beach in the High-A Carolina League but struggled, hitting just .251/.305/.361 with 30 walks and 108 strikeouts in 471 at-bats. His 2002 campaign was much better: returning to Myrtle Beach he hit .336/.406/.512 in 250 at-bats, then .289/.363/.410 in 173 at-bats after promotion to Double-A Greenville.

I filed the following report on LaRoche for the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book:

The Braves got LaRoche in the 29th round in 2000, out of Seminole State Community College in Oklahoma. He played great at rookie-level Danville in ’00, hitting .308 with a .507 slugging percentage, but struggled in the Carolina League in ’01. He returned there to begin ’02, hit the tar out of the ball, then continued hitting decently on promotion to DoubleA Greenville. His combined .317 average led the system, but he’ll need to show more home run power to hold a job in the major leagues. He does have a baseball background, being Dave LaRoche’s son. Glovework is also a positive for him, but I’ve never been a huge fan of these "batting average and defense" first basemen. Grade C+.

LaRoche's 2003 season represented continued improvement, with better power output in particular. He hit .283/.381/.511 with 12 homers, 34 walks, and 53 strikeout in 219 at-bats in Double-A, followed by a .295/.360/.466 mark in 265 at-bats for Triple-A Richmond. Reports continued to emphasize excellent defense and he was getting stronger physically. The report for 2004 was accordingly more enthusiastic.

LaRoche is best known for his defense; he’s one of the best first basemen around, similar to Doug Mientkiewicz but with a stronger arm. He’s emerged as a respectable hitter as well, hitting quite well the last two years. He won’t be a big power guy, but he should hit for average, knock lots of doubles, and post non-awful on-base percentages. He posted a +27 percent OPS in the Southern League, and stayed positive at +13 after moving up to Richmond. LaRoche’s batting stance is a bit unusual, which is sometimes a red flag for scouts, but his swing is considered smooth and no one thinks it will be a major problem. If the Braves enter a serious rebuilding mode this winter, LaRoche could emerge as a regular player as soon as ’04. Grade B.

LaRoche did just that, playing 110 games for the Braves in 2004 and hitting .278/.338/.448. In 2005 the power surge began with 20 homers, followed by 32 more in 2006.

As noted in the reports, I didn't think LaRoche would be a home run guy but he proved me wrong on that, hitting 20 or more homers eight times in his career, exceeding 30 twice, and hitting 255 in his career. Of course that wasn't huge production in the steroid era, but it was still more than I anticipated. He did have a good fielding reputation and won a Gold Glove in 2012, though the advanced defensive metrics were never wild about him.

LaRoche finished his career as a .266/.336/.462 hitter, with an OPS+ of 111 and wRC+ of 110. His career WAR was just 11.3, which feels low intuitively but reflects the relatively negative view that WAR takes of his defense. His peak seasons were 2012 (3.6 WAR, 127 wRC+) at age 32 with the Nationals and 2006 (2.9 WAR, 130 wRC+) at age 26 with the Braves.

Comparable players (retired only) by Sim Score: John Mayberry, Andre Thornton, J.T. Snow, Matt Stairs, Jeff Burroughs, Eric Karros, Tony Clark, Cliff Floyd, and Tino Martinez.. Among first basemen with a similar amount of playing time, LaRoche's 11.3 career WAR puts him in company with Whitey Lockman (11.9), David Segui (11.7), and Lyle Overbay (10.3).

In my work over the years, I use this definition for a Grade B prospect: "Grade B prospects have a good chance to enjoy successful careers. Some will develop into stars, some will not. Most end up spending several years in the majors, at the very least in a marginal role." By that standard, LaRoche definitely panned out, holding a regular job for a decade. However, the shape of that career was rather different than expected, with more home runs but a lower batting average and somewhat weaker defense.