Playing a position known more for offensive contributions from players who often lack the defensive skills to play elsewhere, Adam LaRoche has become a unique commodity for his glove work. While no slouch at the plate, as his .385 weighted on-base average (wOBA) and 148 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) - ranking second and third among National League first basemen, respectively - can attest, it’s LaRoche’s ability to deftly corral balls screaming off of opponents’ bats or out of teammates’ hands with a quiet, almost nonchalant grace that sets him apart from some of his less athletic contemporaries, who often make their way to the position as a means to lessen the negative impact their defensive skills can have on their overall production.
While “Moneyball,” the movie version of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, will try to convince you otherwise, the ability to even adequately field first base is no simple task. Granted, the real estate that a typical first baseman has to cover is slender in comparison to his infield cohorts; however, the need to not only bat down the aforementioned grounders, liners and throws while also holding runners on base, fielding bunts, starting the occasional double play, covering foul territory popups and assisting in defensive duties around the pitcher’s mound all make for a fielding experience that goes beyond a simple game of playing catch with teammates.
For the Nationals infield, arguably one of the best defensively in the game, many of their run-saving plays are saved by LaRoche and his uncanny knack to pick, scoop and stretch to make seemingly every off-the-mark throw from the likes of Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman look like a perfect laser right at chest level in the scorebook. For the balls in the dirt in particular, there is a statistic that tells us how many times a first baseman like LaRoche gets in the dirt to scoop up the throws that fall short - the appropriately named “scoops,” which can be found at FanGraphs. In 2014, we find LaRoche tied with Adrian Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Dodgers for fifth place in the National League with 22 scoops, with LaRoche doing so in 604 1/3 innings played, compared to Gonzalez’s 752 innings, not too far off of the Colorado Rockies’ Justin Morneau’s National League-leading 26 scoops. The 2013 season found LaRoche in fifth place for National League scoops, with 46 picks; over the last 10 years, only Albert Pujols and the now-retired Todd Helton have bested LaRoche’s 227 scoops in the NL.
Looking at these numbers, the notion that picking errant throws is a viable skill that can separate the elite from the adequate at the position is a contentious one; with the scoops data, we lack the number of opportunities to scoop a throw necessary to label a first baseman with a relevant rate of scoop success. Scooping opportunities can also play against a first baseman’s numbers, as it may be a reflection of infielders with strong, accurate arms more than a damnation of a first baseman’s scooping ability. As with many of the advanced defensive statistics and metrics, defining value from a single number - here, in scoops - is not prudent, especially given the number of variables that can be attributed to teammates and their defensive skills playing such large roles in the ultimate number applied to a player.
Those defensive metrics--things such as defensive runs saved (DRS), ultimate zone rating (UZR) and revised zone rating (RZR), don’t smile favorably upon the defensive wares of LaRoche, most putting him at or near the bottom of the first baseman pile in the National League, with only DRS (at plus-2 for the season) showing LaRoche as providing non-negative defensive value. However, consideration must be given again to the infield as a whole when looking at these values, with the idea that the second baseman in particular can affect a first baseman’s defensive numbers, especially when considering range. A good defensive second baseman will often encroach upon a first baseman’s range simply because their skill set or athleticism allows for it, often getting to balls that typically are the purview of the first baseman, which can lessen a first baseman’s range in the eyes of these metrics.
Despite some mixed reviews pertaining to his defensive prowess, LaRoche’s glove work, especially his ability to bail out his other infielders with a scoop, remains exemplary, and combined with the potent pop he provides from the left side, provides the Nationals a rare commodity - a well-rounded first baseman who can truly defend his position.
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.