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Left-handed batters are an endangered species, not in terms of volume, but in terms of quality.
Lefties are taking as high a percentage of the league’s total plate appearances as they ever have, but (or, perhaps, and) they’re hitting worse than right-handed batters for the first time ever. In fact, only in 1981—a strike-shortened season—have lefties ever hit worse:
The defensive shifts that have come into vogue are part of the story here. The ever-expanding strike zone, which is especially hard on left-handed batters, is part of the story. The fact that getting hits on balls in play is a bigger part of offense than it has ever been before is a big part of the story. For many reasons, the game is stacked against left-handed hitters right now, and it might take some time to undo that.
In the meantime, though, any reliable lefty bat is even more valuable than they might otherwise be, because they’re a more rare commodity right now than ever. Adam LaRoche is a reliable lefty bat. With lefties fighting an uphill battle and the league strikeout rate going stratospheric, LaRoche had (arguably) his best season in 2014, in no small part because he struck out less than he had in a long time.
LaRoche doesn’t hit lefties any better than his brethren do lately. He batted .204 with little pop and struck out three times as often as he walked when facing southpaws in 2014. However, he had a .390 on-base percentage against righties, thanks to 65 strikeouts and 67 walks in those matchups. He made contact on a higher percentage of his swings than he ever has before, and specifically, he closed the hole in his swing on pitches up in the zone and above it—swinging at them less often, and hitting them more often when he did. LaRoche’s 13 home runs with two strikes were the sixth-most in baseball, and his adjusted OPS+ in those situations was the 20th-highest, according to the Baseball-Reference Play Index. Making contact has its advantages.
LaRoche’s 13 two-strike bombs put him one ahead of his new star teammate, Jose Abreu. The Chicago White Sox signed LaRoche to a two-year, $25-million deal this weekend, solidifying their lineup and betting on LaRoche’s ability to keep beating the system. I’ve seen this deal compared to Adam Dunn’s with Chicago four years ago, but can’t for the life of me see why. The contract is half as long and less than half as rich, though nearly equal in annual average value, and that’s without accounting for the massive salary inflation in the game since 2010.
Moreover, LaRoche showed signs of real improvement in 2014, a change in approach that makes him more viable for the next two seasons. Dunn himself wasn’t a bad bet. LaRoche is a downright good one. The White Sox were tied to Victor Martinez very early this month. LaRoche is the poor man’s Martinez, with his improved contact rate, shifting approach and solid power, and he’s costing the Sox barely over a third of what Martinez cost the Tigers. Chicago GM Rick Hahn is assembling a fine team on the South Side.Next post: Tyrell Jenkins: The Key to the Jason Heyward Trade?
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