LaRoche is leaving on his own terms (Chicago Tribune)
It's jarring how quickly athletes lose their talents, their ability to do their jobs. One year they can hit a 95-mile-an-hour fastball, and the next they can't. One day they're hitting shots from everywhere on the court, and a few months later they're missing all the same shots. We've seen it happen so many times, guys going from great to horrible practically overnight. And yet, when it happens, it never fails to surprise us. We can't believe that Peyton Manning is suddenly throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, or that Derek Jeter can no longer reach a ball that isn't hit directly at him. Wasn't it just yesterday that they were making highlight reel plays and seemingly at the top of their games?
It's something most of us can't comprehend because most of us don't have skills that can decline so rapidly. Barring some sort of traumatic brain injury, you're not going to wake up in a year and forget how to type or make a sandwich or drive your car. If you play recreational sports, this happens to a much lesser extent. You feel yourself getting older, slower, thicker, but the same thing is happening to everyone else. The teams aren't being re-stocked with fresh 22-year-olds every year, which is why you can hang on in your pick-up basketball league long after you've lost the ability to jump, and why you can play beer-league softball even after developing a pretty substantial beer gut.
Obviously, that is not the case in professional sports. The level of competition is so high, the margin for error so small, that almost imperceptible drops in performance can make the difference between being a star and washing said star's laundry. Lose a mile on your fastball or a foot on your passes, and you'll be out of a job before long.
It's scary, how quickly it can (and does) disappear. Just ask Adam LaRoche.
This time last year, things were looking up for Adam LaRoche. He had just signed a two-year, $25 million deal and was coming off a typical Adam LaRoche season of 26 homers, 92 RBI, .817 OPS. Even though he was 35, some thought he could still improve on those numbers, as he was moving to U.S. Cellular Field (a slugger's paradise) and could focus on his hitting full-time as an everyday DH.
"Physically, I still feel great," he said after joining the White Sox. "I'm looking forward to hopefully being in the middle of that lineup and having a chance to drive some runs in."
Fast forward one year, and he's retiring following the worst season of his career.
It was some career, 12 seasons defined by remarkable consistency, If LaRoche had 12 more seasons like them, he'd be going to the Hall of Fame.
Nine times he swatted 20 or more home runs in a season, but only twice did he top 30. Eight times he drove in at least 78 runs, but never more than 100. His batting average rarely strayed more than 10 points in either direction from .270 before ultimately settling at .260.
Even as the game changed around him, LaRoche remained the same. Every year starting in 2006, the major leagues set a new record for strikeouts, but LaRoche struck out at pretty much the same rate every year. Walk rates continued creeping up as well, but LaRoche didn't become increasingly patient. Batting averages fell as all the walks, strikeouts, and better positioned defenses sucked up hits, but LaRoche's didn't.
Constant changes of scenery never phased LaRoche, either. He changed teams six times in his dozen seasons, but no matter where he played--Atlanta, Chicago, Arizona, Washington--he always seemed right at home.
For nearly a decade, nothing got in the way of LaRoche's eternal quest for those 25 home runs and 80 RBIs. Not age, not defensive shifts, not the expanding strike zone, and not even injury. In 2011 he needed shoulder surgery after batting just .172 in 43 games at age 31. For many first basemen, that would be a death sentence. He came the next year and slugged 25 home runs with 100 RBI--a career high.
LaRoche could never run and didn't play first base particularly well, despite winning a Gold Glove, but he always hit, which is why it seemed like he always would. LaRoche looked like he'd keep on hitting until he was 40, especially after moving to the American League and being able to take advantage of the DH. When he signed that contract with Chicago, it felt as though a new chapter of his career was just beginning.
That chapter turned out to be very short, however, because in 2015 LaRoche finally stopped hitting. He batted .207/.293/.340 with just 12 home runs and 44 RBIs--the worst full-season numbers of his career. He struck out 133 times in only 429 at-bats--the second-worst percentage of his career. I he was worth 1.4 wins below replacement.
It wasn't just a terrible season; it was an embarrassing season. For the first time in his life, his only job was to hit, and he'd responded with the worst offensive campaign of his career. He was often benched against lefties (due to his .383 OPS against them) and struggled versus righties (against whom he had a .697 OPS). Many picked the White Sox to make the playoffs, or at least contend, but instead they finished 10 games below .500. LaRoche barely played in September as Chicago played out the string.
LaRoche could have walked away at any point over the winter, and everyone would have understood. To his credit, though, LaRoche came back. He worked hard during the offseason and showed up to Spring Training, ready for his 13th major league season.
It turned out to be LaRoche's final season, as well as his shortest. It lasted just two Spring Training games before he called it quits, deciding to step away for personal reasons.
And just like that, his career was over.
People, myself included, don't appreciate how hard it is to hit consistently at the major league level. As if playing everyday for 7-8 months isn't hard enough, you're constantly traveling, facing new pitchers, and trying to master an ever-changing strike zone. You deal with different weather, altitudes, and hitter's backgrounds. The scouting report on you gets a little longer, so pitchers know how to attack your weaknesses and the defense knows where you're going to hit it before you do. No wonder hitters are like mad scientists, constantly making adjustments, tinkering with their swings, toying with their stances, trying whatever they can think of that might help them gain an edge and hoping to God it actually works.
Whatever Adam LaRoche was doing, it worked pretty darn well for 12 years.