With his three-run home run off Burch Smith in San Diego on Friday night, Adam LaRoche extended his career-long hitting streak to 14 games. Another blast a couple innings later confirmed what had been apparent for a week: LaRoche was back to the form that won him a Silver Slugger award in 2012.
LaRoche was awful over the first month of the season, posting a .176/.208/.257 line. He was basically hitting like Dee Gordon in a slump. Forget hitting his own weight, he barely slugged his own weight. His numbers in April were actually worse than they were 2011, when he was playing with one shoulder.
But after the rough start, LaRoche has bounced back in May, hitting a robust .365/.443/.635 to go along with four long balls. His .452 wOBA in May ranks fifth in the NL--a substantial turnaround after ranking second from the bottom in April.
Let's take a look inside the numbers to see how he turned things around.
When looking at the 33-year-old's numbers, the thing that immediately jumps out is the difference between his plate discipline stats in April and May. LaRoche is making more contact in and out of the zone. He's also swinging more often despite the percentage of pitches he's seen in the strike zone dropping from 46.3 in April to 40.5 in May.
But he's not just hacking at everything; he's swinging at pitches out of the zone at about the same rate he did during April and swinging more often at pitches in the zone. His discipline profile in May is nearly identical to his numbers in 2012, suggesting LaRoche is starting to get more comfortable in the batter's box.
His improved approach at the plate has translated into improved walk and strikeout numbers. After posting a 32.6 percent strikeout rate and 9 percent walk rate in April, LaRoche struck out in only 26 percent of his plate appearances while walking in 13 percent of them.
In April, LaRoche was taking a lot of hittable pitches but chasing poor ones. Over the first half of May, he's improved in that regard. In the chart below (h/t to Texas Leaguers), you can see how many pitches LaRoche took in April that caught the heart of the plate (Left) compared to his takes during his hitting streak (Right).
(Click to enlarge)
LaRoche's improved batting eye has led to more favorable hitting counts as well. In April, about 15 percent of the pitches LaRoche saw came in counts in which he was ahead. In May, that number has spiked to 30 percent. Over his career, LaRoche has hit .320/.481/.590 when he's ahead in the count, a situation he's been seeing more often lately.
It's also helped that he's seeing less first-pitch strikes--which has a low year-to-year correlation meaning that batters who see a disproportionately high number of first-pitch strikes are unlucky. LaRoche fell behind 0-1 over 66 percent of his at-bats over the first month of the season. During May, that number has dropped to 54 percent, thus helping him to get ahead of pitchers more often.
In 2-1 and 3-1 counts, LaRoche doesn't have to worry about breaking balls and off-speed stuff, letting him focus on timing fastballs. He's whiffed on just 1.1 percent of the four-seam fastballs he's seen in May after missing on 11.4 percent of them in April, according to TexasLeaguers.com.
Take a look at how much more comfortable he is in this .GIF of his first home run on Friday night compared to his swing-and-miss on a Shelby Miller heaterback in April.
There's a lot less wasted motion in the first one and notice how he turns over on his front ankle and loses his balance in the second one. Also, compare two screen shots taken right before the ball crosses home plate in those at-bats.
I'm not a hitting coach, but you can see in the home run picture that his top half and bottom half are working together while his hand stay inside the baseball. In the other picture, his bottom half has opened up while his top half remains closed as he flails at the ball.
To go along with a smoother swing, luck has finally landed on the side of LaRoche. After an April BABIP of just .165, he's seen his average on balls in play hit .455 during May.
But it hasn't been all luck accounting for the rise in numbers. Even if you take LaRoche's April numbers and normalize the BABIP to .300, he still would have hit only .209/.247/.333, so obviously LaRoche is making better contact to go along with his improved luck. And that has shown in his batted ball numbers:
So what happens after the luck dries up? LaRoche obviously isn't going to hit .365/.443/.635 with a BABIP in the .400s for the rest of the year; but there's no reason why he won't continue to hit the ball just as well as the chart above indicates he has been in May (granted, with some regression in HR/FB%).
If you take what he's done in May and lower his BABIP from .455 to .300, his line drops to .270/.360/.540--or about what he hit in winning the Silver Slugger Award in 2012. The Nationals will take that.
Now if only the rest of the lineup could follow suit.