The offensive start to the 2014 season by the Nationals has been mildly surprising. Second in the National League in runs scored per game at 4.42 (behind the Rockies' 5.38 runs per game), this early-season surge in scoring has been paced by some surprising sources of production.
With five players in the top 50 in National League weighted on base average (wOBA) with a minimum of 80 plate appearances, the Nationals have displayed a potent lineup, even with the musical chairs approach to lineup optimization manager Matt Williams has embraced so far this year. Sprinkled in with the typical offense provided by the like of Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper has been Danny Espinosa's career resurgence, with a .345 wOBA paced by some timely bunt hits and a pair of home runs, along with a potential breakout season by Anthony Rendon, owner of a .362 wOBA and one of the sweeter swings and disciplined approaches in the game seen from the under-25 crowd.
Spearheading the offensive effort is a familiar face, first baseman Adam LaRoche. However, the timing and approach seen from the steadfast veteran, currently enjoying a .398 wOBA -- 92 points above league average -- and a career-best 15.5 percent walk rate and 30.9 percent line drive rate, is what makes his output familiarly unfamiliar. Normally a slow starter, LaRoche's career wOBA in during March and April is .317, which is roughly league average, so the quick start to 2014 paired with an expected strong second half makes for an encouraging outlook for LaRoche.
Along with his typically slow start, LaRoche is also known for his dead pull hitting tendencies; when it comes to dramatic defensive shifts to counter a hitter's pull tendencies, only Philadelphia's Ryan Howard (218) had more shifts put on against him than LaRoche (199) in the National League. However, 2014 has also shown LaRoche better countering these defensive shifts, already hitting seven of his season's 27 hits to left or left-center field, which comes out to 25.9 percent of his hits. Of these seven hits, five have been singles, with one double and a opposite-field home run included in the shift-busting hits, or 28.6 percent extra-base *
hits. How does this compare to his two previous seasons with the Nationals?
2014: 27 total hits, seven hit to left field (25.9 percent), 28.6 percent for extra bases
2013: 121 total hits, 29 hits to left field (24 percent), 34.5 percent for extra bases
2012: 155 total hits, 28 hits to left field (18.1 percent), 42.9 percent for extra bases
It appears the opposite-field approach seen so far in 2014 is also a career-best, thus far slightly edging last year's number of hits to left and left-center; however, we do see that fewer of this season's hit are of the extra base variety. However, much of what goes into opposite-field hitting is simply taking what a pitcher gives you. Let's see what pitchers have given LaRoche that he has promptly deposited to the opposite field, in terms of pitch type:
2014 - 85.7 percent fastballs
2013 - 69 percent fastballs
2012 - 60.7 percent fastballs
In 2014, LaRoche's opposite-field hits have come mostly off of fastballs, with his other hit coming off of a changeup. In 2013, his hits came off of a smorgasbord of pitches: four curveballs, two changeups, and one each of a cut fastball, split-finger fastball and a slider. The 2012 season saw LaRoche's non-fastball left-side hits coming off off four cutters, four sliders, two curves and a changeup.
Throughout his career, the standard approach taken by both left- and right-handed pitchers to get LaRoche out was to pound the outside corner; this approach has not changed in 2014, as can be seen by a quick perusal of LaRoche's Brooks Baseball page. However, this season, we do see LaRoche possibly making a more concerted effort to take those outside offerings to the opposite field instead of trying to turn on everything, thereby playing into an opponent's shifting ways.
With LaRoche's newfound opposite-field ways, we not only see the benefits of taking what you are given with respect to a quick start to the season. We also see a savvy hitter slowly refining his approach and making the adjustments needed to put himself in a position to put a good swing on a pitch, staying within himself with his swing and, in doing so, becoming an even tougher out.
Stuart Wallace blogs about the Nationals at District Sports Page. Follow him on Twitter: @TClippardsSpecs. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.