LaRoche an underrated key for Nationals

August, 2, 2012
8/02/12
11:10
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Across the majors, first base is the superstar position as it tends to have the best hitters in any given season. Just think of some of the stars in recent years: Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard. Each of them, at various times, have been some of the most feared hitters in the game, and all of them have been rewarded handsomely with lengthy, expensive contracts.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Adam LaRoche
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterAdam LaRoche has been a bargain at first base for the Nationals this season.
There is one name, however, that is up there with Pujols and Fielder this season, but he hasn't gotten any accolades: Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche, who went 3-for-4 with his 20th home run in a 3-0 victory over the Phillies on Thursday. LaRoche was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 29th round of the 2000 draft, a very late round that coincidentally also included Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler. Since leaving the Braves in 2006, the left-handed first baseman has spent time with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, the Braves again briefly, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Nationals.

Since earning an everyday job with the Braves back in 2005, LaRoche has flown under the radar despite solid production at the plate year in and year out. Since '05, only seven first basemen have had more 25-plus home run seasons than LaRoche's four: the aforementioned Teixeira, Pujols, Fielder, Gonzalez and Howard, as well as Paul Konerko and Carlos Pena. Tied with LaRoche's four 25-homer seasons are Miguel Cabrera and Lance Berkman -- certainly an esteemed crowd with which to be associated.

2006 may have been LaRoche's peak, when he finished with 32 home runs and a .915 OPS (130 OPS+), both career-highs. Six years later, though, LaRoche has embarked on another great season as he currently sits on 20 home runs and an .852 OPS. Entering Thursday's game, his .351 weighted on-base average, or wOBA, was fifth-best among qualified National League first basemen (min. 300 PA).

LaRoche doesn't just hit, though -- he is among the game's best-fielding first basemen. Even better, first base is a position where defense is traditionally underrated or even outright ignored. Teams are happy to put a sloppy-fielding slugger there if he can put up 35 home runs. Since 2009, LaRoche has the second-best UZR/150, tied with Teixeira at 4.1, meaning that both players would save about four more runs than the average-fielding first basemen over 150 defensive games. The only better fielder according to UZR is Gonzalez at 7.2.

The Nationals have gone through several first basemen over the years, including Nick Johnson and Adam Dunn, but in the franchise's first season of contention since, well, 1994, they have gotten a lot more production from LaRoche than expected when they signed him to a two-year, $16 million contract in January 2011. As other first basemen signed mega-deals -- Howard at $125 million, Fielder at $214 million and Pujols at $240 million -- the Nats were happy to look for a bargain and they certainly found one in LaRoche. Better yet, as they get nearer to their first postseason berth since 1981, they will be relying on the veteran to lead a very young roster into October.

Bill Baer usually writes about the Phillies at Crashburn Alley. Follow him on Twitter.

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