Slumping early has a pressure all its own
Stark numbers can make April struggles hard to shake
After over a decade in professional baseball, the game hasn't revealed all of its secrets to Adam LaRoche. At times, it remains frustratingly opaque.
This season is one of those times. The Nationals first baseman has earned the label of "slow starter" over his career, with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) that sputters at .698 in March and April and rises each month through August. But from 2009-12, LaRoche excelled in three out of four Aprils, and last year enjoyed his best ever.
This season he has found him bogged down again, deeper than ever, despite not changing anything. Why?
"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 last Monday.
Later that day, he went 0-for-4 against the Cardinals to begin an 0-for-24 homestand that included 11 strikeouts and dropped his average to .135. It's an extreme example of a problem that seems to haunt many hitters.
Finding an explanation is a difficult endeavor. Small sample sizes and arbitrary cutoff points on the calendar work to obscure any definitive conclusions. A slump in April -- or even the first half of a season -- could signify a real problem, or it could be statistical quirk that will work itself out over time.
But there is this: Of the 10 active hitters (minimum 600 games) with the largest negative gap between their career OPS and first-month OPS, three have not played yet this season. The other seven all have posted an OPS below their career mark. A few, like LaRoche, are producing at a significantly reduced rate.
"Hitting is a difficult skill, and a lot of guys are trying to find their timing early in the season, and that could be one of the things that you try to sort out and work on," Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. "To me it goes back to preparation and the process and trying to do everything you can to prepare yourself and be ready to go when the bell rings. So I can't put too much into it one way or another."
LaRoche is a power hitter with a long swing that can get out sorts easily, a "timing guy," according to Eckstein. For some, Spring Training might not provide adequate preparation, and it might take longer to shake off the rust, particularly amid April's often cold weather.
There can be other factors as well. Personal issues or injuries that happen to pop up early in the season can lead to bad starts that tilt career numbers. For Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the key is health.
"I would say I've started slow compared to the second half of some years," he said. "But there's no doubt about it: When you're feeling good out there, your chances to succeed are going to be good."
An average player would be happy with Tulowitzki's early-season numbers over his career, but those stats pale in comparison to his overall body of work. Through Sunday, he owned a combined .780 OPS in April and May, but .871 overall. He has the largest gap between first-half and total OPS of any active hitter, a bit ahead of LaRoche.
Tulowitzki hurt his groin in the opening week of 2012 but played through the injury until going on the disabled list at the end of May. He posted a .799 OPS in April and .846 total and said the injury showed up on the defensive side, too.
SLOW FIRST HALVES
This year, Tulowitzki had enjoyed good health before straining his left rotator cuff on Sunday. Now day to day with the injury, he had been in All-Star form, hitting .308/.394/.603 with six home runs and 22 RBIs. Handling the dry patches has become easier over time.
"I've been through a lot of them," Tulowitzki said. "If anything, experience has helped. I've had some ups, definitely had some downs. But just because I've been hurt and I want to play so bad, sometimes no matter how you do, good or bad -- you're just happy to be out there playing."
Another potential challenge early in the season is the lack of a buffer shielding a player's "scoreboard numbers" -- and their psyches. Falling into a slump in April can lead to some ugly-looking stats, while scuffling midseason doesn't have the same overall effect.
LaRoche believes the isolation of April stats can play a factor in continued struggles. When he was younger, a slump caused him to try harder, which only made things worse in a game where, "most of the time, less is more." Now he understands that slumps pass, and the only thing to do is to keep swinging. He no longer worries about the ugly batting average staring at him from the scoreboard.
"Everything that's up on that board is in the past, and there's nothing you can do about it," LaRoche said. "I think it helps if you can look at it that way and separate those two, and say, 'OK, the scoreboard's the past. Now what's this next page going to look like?' And worry about today. Easier said than done, but that's the goal."
The best news for baseball's slow starters is that April ends on Tuesday, and time can heal a lot of wounds. A player's history can be a source of consternation but also comfort, showing that better times likely lie ahead.
As Rangers manager Ron Washington said recently about one of his slow starters, outfielder David Murphy: "He has a record that shows he knows how to come around."
Andrew Simon is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.