A fast start for Adam LaRoche

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — The 2014 season is still very young, but already, Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche is bucking a trend that has left its mark on his career.

Whether it’s a meaningless statistical quirk or something deeper, LaRoche has rightfully earned the label of a slow starter over the years. As of last year, he sported the seventh-largest negative gap between his career OPS and April OPS, as well as the second-biggest between his career OPS and first-half OPS of any active player. At the time, mired in a rough start even by his standards, LaRoche couldn’t explain what was behind it.

“If I had the answer to that, I’d love to pass it on to some younger guys, but there’s just nothing there,” LaRoche said, near the end of an April that saw him hit .136/.213/.259.

To be clear, LaRoche has enjoyed strong Aprils before, such as in 2012, when he jumpstarted one of his best overall seasons by posting a .964 OPS in the opening month. And so far in 2014, he’s on that track again.

LaRoche went 3-for-3 and drew a walk in Tuesday night’s win over the Marlins, leaving him with a line of .348/.500/.652.

To be sure, it’s an extremely small sample size. But coming off a subpar 2013 and considering LaRoche’s historical struggles in the early going, it qualifies as a positive sign.

“I’ve seen Adam hit 30 [home runs] and drive in 100, and I know he’s capable of doing that,” manager Matt Williams said. “What’s encouraging to me is him hitting the ball the other way and taking the single when it’s given to him. What he’s done so far is he’s handled lefties pretty well and stayed on the baseball. We saw that a lot in Spring Training, too. It was a focus of his to stay on the baseball and hit it to the opposite gap, and he’s done that.”

LaRoche did put together a solid spring, hitting .283/.327/.522. He said that over the last couple of weeks of Grapefruit League play, he tweaked his swing slightly, working to shorten it and keep his front leg soft.

“It’s paying off now,” he said. “It feels good. Again, it’s hitting. It comes and goes, so you just ride it out.”

So far this season, LaRoche has homered twice, including a mammoth blast into the top deck at Nats Park on Saturday against the Braves.

He didn’t offer up anything that dramatic on Tuesday, but he reached safely in every plate appearance. LaRoche singled to left in the first inning, walked in the fourth, singled to center in the sixth and singled to right in the eighth against lefty reliever Mike Dunn.

He said his frequent use of the opposite field hasn’t been intentional, but it is a good sign.

“When I’m in position to hit and I’m not pulling off the ball, I’ll do that obviously more than not,” he said. “I’ll get in modes where it probably appears I’m pulling off of everything. It’s one of those things there where I get really hard on my front side, so without getting too technical, no, it’s an accident and I’m looking to drive the ball, but if the timing’s on and I’m in position, I’m still able to go that way.”

However it’s happened, the results have been stark. In seven games and 30 plate appearances, LaRoche has reached base safely 15 times. Last season, it took him 14 games and 53 plate appearances to get to the same point.

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