Where is Andy LaRoche’s power?

One of the most disappointing aspects of the season for me has been Andy LaRoche‘s complete lack of power. He is currently ranked 131st out of 160 qualified hitters in Isolated Power (ISO), right between Craig Counsell and Felipe Lopez. If the Pirates are going to turn the corner and become a competitive ballclub, they need to receive better offensive production from their starting position players.

One frequent argument is that LaRoche, who is in his first full major league season, is still young and that the power will develop as he ages. That is definitely possible, but it is anything but a given. It is one thing to assume that Andrew McCutchen (22 years old) or Jose Tabata (21 years old) will show more pop in the future. It is much different to say the same for LaRoche (25 years old). LaRoche is nearing what is generally a player’s prime age, and with each passing year, his chances of seeing a dramatic improvement in performance decrease.

I would like to focus this post on LaRoche’s minor league numbers, specifically looking for an indication that raw power was present. Clearly, he posted some very high slugging percentages in the Pacific Coast League. But that league is known to inflate offensive performance. So I decided to plug his raw numbers into the equivalency calculator at minorleaguesplits.com. The calculator helpfully adjusts for league and team. Thus, we can see how LaRoche would have performed had he been playing in Pittsburgh in a certain year. I only used his stats from Double-A and higher, since that is a better indicator of major league performance than performance at the lower levels. I also excluded the 22 Double-A at-bats LaRoche accumulated in 2008, due to the small sample size. I included LaRoche’s stats for this season in the bottom row. Focus on the major league equivalent ISO numbers.

Keep in mind that a player is generally in the minor leagues for a reason: he is not ready for major league baseball. Thus, a good season in Double-A generally does not equate to impressive numbers at the major league level. 

Raw Numbers Major League Equivalency
2005 21 AA 227 0.273 0.367 0.445 0.172 0.228 0.305 0.360 0.132
2006 22 AA 230 0.309 0.419 0.483 0.174 0.255 0.346 0.388 0.133
2006 22 AAA 202 0.322 0.400 0.550 0.228 0.252 0.318 0.414 0.162
2007 23 AAA 265 0.309 0.399 0.589 0.280 0.240 0.318 0.436 0.196
2008 24 AAA 123 0.293 0.452 0.439 0.146 0.219 0.360 0.317 0.098
2009 25 MLB 0.254 0.333 0.376 0.122

First of all, notice how drastically the Triple-A numbers are regressed by the calculator. Even with that drastic reduction, LaRoche’s ISO climbed steadily before maxing out in 2007. It fell off the table in 2008, and rose only slightly in Pittsburgh this season. Essentially, LaRoche had major league power at 22 and 23, but no longer has it at 25.

I think there are two possible explanations for this. 1) LaRoche peaked unusually early, while still in Triple-A, or 2) LaRoche is still feeling the effects of the torn thumb ligament he suffered in the spring of 2008. His ISO immediately dropped after his injury, and it has yet to recover. Hand injuries can sap a player’s power for up to 18 months, although I am not sure whether this specific issue has a similar recovery time. With LaRoche’s injury occurring last March, he should be starting to show signs of increased power very soon. I am somewhat hesitant to blame an injury that occurred over a year ago, but it is something to consider.

If Pedro Alvarez is able to stick at third base, LaRoche is unlikely to have much more time to prove himself in the Pirates’ lineup. However, there is still some hope that he can be a successful starter. His walk rate is above average and his line drive rate, despite a drop to its current 19.4%, still indicates that LaRoche should have a higher BABIP than the .288 he currently carries. A little more luck should raise his average a bit and we have seen in this post that there is power potential somewhere inside him.

I am much less optimistic about LaRoche’s future than I was last year or earlier this season. But there is still some slight hope remaining. If the missing power does in fact return in some form, he could still become a very valuable player.

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