Adam LaRoche has an almost universal reputation around baseball as a slow starter, so much so that baseball people offer this advice to those following the Nationals: "Don't even worry about his average until after the All-Star break."
But even for LaRoche - a career .208 hitter in March and April, and .251 career hitter in May - this start might be pushing things a little.
He's hitting .188, having hit only three homers in 38 games where he's been asked to be the Nationals' No. 4 or No. 5 hitter on most days. LaRoche is drawing walks (his on-base percentage is 118 points better than his average, at .306), but he hasn't done much else at the plate. The way he's played defense, though, has helped make up for some of it.
LaRoche hasn't made an error in 38 games at first, and his Ultimate Zone Rating is already 0.9 runs over replacement. Extrapolated over 150 games, LaRoche would have a UZR of 5.1 runs above replacement, the second-best mark of his career. And he's doing it all with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.
He showed his glove again on Sunday, snatching a hard liner to start an unassisted double play in the eighth inning. Then, in the ninth, LaRoche played behind Brett Hayes at first base, making a stop deep in the hole as part of a shift and throwing a strike to Cole Kimball, who barely beat Chris Coghlan to the bag for the second out of the inning in the Nationals' 8-4 win.
"I'm in one of those spots where I need to do something productive," LaRoche said Sunday. "It's not happening at the plate right now, unfortunately. The defense has been there, and I've been able to help these guys out a little bit."
When the Nationals let slugging first baseman Adam Dunn go in free agency, replacing him with LaRoche in an effort to get better defensively, fans howled. That criticism has softened as Dunn has hit almost as poorly as LaRoche in his first quarter of the season with the Chicago White Sox (.210/.340/.387, four homers, 16 RBIs in 34 games), but the Nationals still need LaRoche to move toward his typical 25-homer, 80-RBI seasons.
LaRoche's labral tear in his left shoulder has hurt his ability to fire across the diamond, but because it's the top hand on his swing, it's not hurting him at the plate, manager Jim Riggleman said again on Sunday. LaRoche normally mashes fastballs, but he's missed opportunities this year, hitting them at seven runs below average already.
Until (or unless) he gets out of his slump at the plate, LaRoche will have to continue to help the Nationals on defense. And so far, he's done that almost flawlessly.
"The play that he made to get the ball to Cole Kimball, that's not an easy play, from where he's got to throw it kind of sidearm to get it to the pitcher," Riggleman said. "That's really a great play. We've seen him do that 12, 15 times, it seems like now. Then he snagged the line drive for us. He's picked balls in the dirt. He's just played Gold Glove defense over there."