SweetSpot: Andy LaRoche

Do Pirates overreact to players' frustrations?

September, 22, 2010
Baseball Management 101, via Dejan Kovacevic:

So, Garrett Jones thinks he can be more than a platoon player?

You can read about that it in the Notebook below, but I will add here that all concerned, the Pirates and Jones, would do well not to affix or accept labels prematurely. And then, if the Pirates do affix such labels, they should not take umbrage when the athlete thinks he can do better.

Any of this ring a bell?

In the summer of 2008, just before a morning workout at Wrigley, Jose Bautista was told by John Russell that he had lost his job to Andy LaRoche. This was what Bautista told me that morning in the visitors' dugout.

Seem harmless?

Nevertheless, the Pirates, by several accounts, took umbrage that Bautista expressed that he still saw himself as everyday material, almost as if it were an act of insubordination.

Then, Bautista was sent to the minors.

Then, after Bautista did very well in the minors, he was traded to Toronto for third-string, since-released catcher Robinzon Diaz.

You know the rest.

The Rest: Diaz signs with Tigers, posts .269 on-base percentage in Triple-A; Jose Bautista leads Major League Baseball in home runs.

Oh, and in case you didn't click: That morning in the dugout, Bautista told Kovacevic, "If there's a reason for my demotion, I don't have one. They really didn't give me one."

That's his side. And frankly, while we have some idea of what Bautista told Kovacevic, we have no idea what Bautista might have said to management. Still, you can understand if he was frustrated. At the time, his .251/.326/.421 line wasn't anything special ... but at the same time, Andy LaRoche's line in 62 games with the Dodgers was less special: .217/.348/.316.

Of course, at the time I loved that move for the Pirates. I loved LaRoche's fantastic minor-league numbers, and was convinced that all he needed was a real chance to play.

You know the rest of that, too. The Pirates were wrong. I was really wrong. Jose Bautista's leading Major League Baseball in home runs.

Maybe, as Kovacevic suggests, there's a lesson in here for the Pirates about letting players express themselves. I hope there's a lesson for me in here, about the unpredictability of young men playing a difficult game.

Granted, Garrett Jones does have a .245 career OBP against lefties ...

Bucs have help on the way, but enough?

June, 15, 2010
Rumors suggest that the Pirates are about to summon top prospect Pedro Alvarez to the majors; Ron Cook suggests that perhaps only Alvarez can save Neal Huntington's job:

    If I'm Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, I'm promoting hotshot prospect Pedro Alvarez from the minors today, putting him in the lineup at third base tonight against the Chicago White Sox at PNC Park and praying like crazy he does something to help me save my job. Next month might be too late. Heck, next week could be too late.

    Huntington has to be running out of time. He's in the final season of a three-year contract and management has given no indication it plans on extending him. There's a good reason for that. Overall, he hasn't done a very good job.


    In many ways, the Pirates' season is over again, long before the Fourth of July. But wouldn't it be fun to see what Alvarez could do with future star Andrew McCutchen and the other young guys that Huntington has finally, seemingly reluctantly, brought up? Tabata. Neil Walker. Brad Lincoln. Steve Pearce once he is healthy again. Who knows? Maybe they could put a little something good together. Maybe they could save Huntington's job.

    If I'm Huntington, I'm willing to take that chance. Apparently, he isn't to that point yet. What? Is he afraid Alvarez will fail? If that happens, he almost surely will be fired.

    That's a terrible way to generally manage, isn't it?

    If I'm Huntington, I'm going down firing all the bullets in my gun. I'm not leaving any in the chamber in Indianapolis.

Huntington's probably safe for the moment, so I don't see any point in rushing Alvarez.

Which isn't to suggest Alvarez doesn't deserve a promotion. He's played well in Triple-A this season, while Andy LaRoche, the incumbent at third base, is suffering through yet another awful season. But LaRoche and third base is far from the Pirates' only problem. They've got middle infielders who can't hit, Lastings Milledge looks finished, and Paul Maholm is their only decent starting pitcher.

With Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, the Pirates do have the makings of a decent (and exceptionally young) lineup. But gosh, they sure seem a long way from their first winning season since 1992. Alvarez is going to help Huntington only if Alvarez keys a second-half surge that gets the Pirates out of the basement. Fortunately, the Pirates have regression to the mean and Astros in Houston on their side.

Duke dazzles, Russell puzzles

September, 29, 2009
In case you missed it: Monday afternoon, John Russell made perhaps the most bizarre pitching change of the season, yanking Zach Duke -- who'd thrown 103 pitches -- with a 10-run lead and two outs in the ninth inning.

So what was Russell thinking? If anyone knows, it's Dejan Kovacevic ...

    Why take out Duke?

    He was not on a pitch count, Russell said, but the manager offered two explanations:

    1. He wanted Duke to get an ovation.

    2. He wanted to get reliever Donnie Veal some work.

    "I wanted Zach to have a nice ovation," Russell said. "He did a heck of a job, pitched a great game. We were trying to get him a shutout and, unfortunately, they scored the run. We just wanted to give the fans an opportunity to appreciate what he did rather than the game just being over. ... And it was good that we got Donnie in the game. That'll make him a little more prepared."


    Duke is second-time eligible for salary in the coming offseason, and a fourth complete game would have bolstered his bargaining position, tying him for the league lead with San Francisco's twin aces, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

    But team president Frank Coonelly strongly rejected any link.

    "It was JR's decision, and the last thing he or anyone else was thinking about at a moment like that is a possible arbitration case in the future," Coonelly said.

OK, class ... Let's see if we can figure out, together, why John Russell win is Monday's Dunce of the Day Award.

Is it because Zack Duke will be mad at him?

No. Maybe for an hour or three. But all will be forgiven and forgotten by next spring, when it matters.

Is it because Russell has exposed the Pirates as the they really are? No. The notion that Russell was following orders from the front office, while perhaps attractive to baseball fans who believe the CIA and Lyndon Johnson conspired to kill JFK, seems preposterous on its face.

John Russell is our Dunce of Yesterday because his move suggests a complete lack of awareness. The Pirates, so starved for good stories this season, had two of them Monday: Andy LaRoche's huge game and Duke's (almost) complete-game victory against the best team in the National League.

Too good stories, and all the manager had to do was stay out of the way. There's an old farmer's saying -- "Don't interfere with somethin' that ain't botherin' you none." -- and somehow Russell just couldn't resist interferin'. That game wasn't botherin' him none!

You know what? If Russell were a rookie manager, I could happily consider this a lesson learned by the fresh-faced kid. But Russell's nearly 50 years old and he's managed a major league club for nearly two full seasons. Two full seasons, by the way, in which his teams have lost more than 60 percent of their games.

Yanking a pitcher with two outs in the ninth inning of a meaningless game is hardly a fireable offense. But someday Russell will be fired, and I suspect he won't put this one at the top of his updated résumé.

Red Sox trade for 1B LaRoche?

July, 22, 2009
Well, this is weird:
    Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting that the Red Sox have traded for first baseman Adam LaRoche of the Pittsburgh Pirates. LaRoche is a power-hitting first baseman who has averaged 24.5 homers over the past four seasons with the Braves and Pirates. He is hitting .247 with a .329 OBP and .441 slugging mark for the Pirates this year, down from career totals of .269/.338/.486. As of now, there is no word about who the Sox are sending to the Pirates.
I hope you have better luck with Kovacevic than I did; apparently the Post-Gazette's Web site was at least momentarily overwhelmed by traffic from Red Sox Nation, and I still haven't seen the original report. But Kovacevic works hard and I can't remember him ever being wrong about something, so let's steam ahead as if this trade is really happening.

Where does LaRoche fit, anyway? I suppose that David Ortiz could use a platoon partner, but that's not going to work since he and LaRoche bat left-handed. I suppose the Red Sox might be worried about Mike Lowell, except he's been perfectly fine since coming off the DL last week.

Also, Adam LaRoche isn't ... well, he's just not all that good. This is his sixth major league season. He's been excellent in two of them, and just sort of adequate in four of them. That's in the National League, mind you. In the American League he might not even be an average first baseman.

The Red Sox usually know what they're doing. I don't, yet.

Update: According to WEEI.com, the Pirates will get Double-A shortstop Argenis Diaz and Class A pitcher Hunter Strickland. Diaz was listed as the Red Sox' No. 17 prospect before the season, while Strickland wasn't listed. This looks like a salary dump, mostly.

Reaching into the mailbag

June, 8, 2009
Trying to make a dent in the old mailbag today ...
    Rob, Love your blog, but don't you think it's time for an apology to Livian Hernandez? He's 5-1 with a 3.88 ERA. In his last 4 starts he's given up 4 earned runs in 28 2/3 innings including the Mets only complete game this year and seven shutout innings yesterday. Sure, he may break down at some point, but he's certainly proved he's more than an acceptable 4th or 5th starter.

    Andrew (Bronx, NY)

Andrew, Hernandez has pitched better than I thought he would. But four starts, really? In his first nine starts with the Twins last year, Hernandez went 6-1 with a 3.90 ERA. Then, too, readers were calling for me to apologize -- and by the way, do you think a baseball player really cares what I think? -- but I demurred, citing Hernandez's absurdly low strikeout rate.

Hernandez started 14 more games for the Twins, going 4-7 with a 6.59 ERA, and I would argue that he essentially cost them the division title. Nobody owed Hernandez an apology; rather, Twins management owed an apology to the fans for letting Hernandez stay in the rotation for too long. In a season that wound up going down to the last game.

That said, Hernandez has pitched well for the Mets, with a strikeout rate significantly higher than what he did in 2007 or '08. If he continues to strike out more than five batters per nine innings, he's got a pretty decent chance of being perfectly useful. And if that happens, you'll read about it here. No apologies, though, because while my intellect might be lacking, my motives are pure.

    Hey Rob. You need to make a blog entry about Andy LaRoche. He's been pretty darn good, plus it's a great chance for you to give yourself a pat on the back.

    Arun (Savannah)

Not my job, Arun, and anyway I haven't done anything. If anyone deserves a pat on the back, it's Andy LaRoche for gutting through some tough times. We're still waiting for the power, but if he keeps hitting .300 he's going to enjoy a long and lucrative career.
    How did you manage to make it through an extended discussion of Warren Spahn without mentioning the war? It's not at all unreasonable to think that if he had gotten to play his age 22-24 seasons, he quite possibly would have made it to 400 wins. I know you're not about counterfactuals--nor should you be because he just as easily could have gotten injured--but here's the base of my question: If Spahn had won 400, would we even be debating who was the greatest lefty?

    James (Durham)

If the "extended discussion" had been about just Spahn, we'd have mentioned the war. But the discussion was about Spahn and Grove and Johnson and a few other great lefties, so that bit of information wound up on the cutting-room floor. Really, though, you asnswered your own question ... I believe there's a decent chance that Spahn's longevity was a result of World War II, as he spent a few years of his early 20s fighting off Germans instead of firing fastballs and curveballs.

I do not mean to diminish the service of Spahn, who saw real combat in Western Europe and could easily have been killed near the Remagen Bridge. But while I've always been perfectly willing to give "extra credit" to hitters -- Phil Rizzuto, for example -- who missed time because of the war, I'm reluctant to extend that same courtesy to pitchers, and particularly to pitchers whose arms were still young and tender when they served.

Am I wrong? Perhaps. But considering that I wound up with Spahn atop my list anyway, I hope you won't hold it against me.

Benching Andy LaRoche

April, 13, 2009
Via the Bucco Blog, a bit of unhappy news (at least to those of us who believe in minor-league stats):
    Andy LaRoche, riding an 0-for-14 stretch at the plate, is out of the starting lineup again today. Ramon Vazquez will start at third base for the home opener.

    "We're going to give Andy every chance to work through this," manager John Russell said.

What I think: There is something wrong with Andy LaRoche.

I mean, something seriously wrong.

LaRoche is still relatively young. He's played Triple-A ball at the ages of 22, 23, and 24, and in 167 games he's got a .310/.412/.544 line. Granted, much of that's come in a hitter's park in a hitter's league, but I'd be willing to bet the great majority of hitters that young with those numbers at that level wind up becoming good major league players, if not stars.

LaRoche's line in the majors: .176/.279/.261. And we're not talking about a cup of coffee; that's 382 plate appearances. Now, I know that 382 plate appearances is not an enormous sample, but the difference between LaRoche's minor- and major-league performance is enormous enough that I think we have to at least wonder, you know?

The Dodgers had him, and decided that (first) Blake DeWitt and (then) Casey Blake were better options at third base than their hot prospect with the big Triple-A stats. The Pirates, a week into LaRoche's first full (maybe) season with the club, are benching him. Maybe he's just not right, physically. That would be my guess, because I think the player who can thrive in Triple-A but can't emotionally cope with the majors is exceptionally rare (if that beast even exists).

One thing I'm fairly sure of, though: If there's really something wrong with Andy LaRoche, benching him for a game or three isn't going to fix it. I suspect he might need a whole lot of time and maybe a whole team of specialists.