Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Card #142: Dave LaRoche

Who Can It Be Now?
David Eugene LaRoche was born on May 14, 1948, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Well, actually, David Garcia was born on that date in Colorado Springs. His parents divorced when he was young, and Dave took on his stepfather's name as a child. LaRoche is actually of Mexican heritage, not French as his surname would imply.

LaRoche grew up in Torrance, California, and attended high school as West High School there. The California Angels drafted LaRoche in 1966 in the 20th round, but LaRoche did not sign with the Angels at that time. Seven months later, the Angels selected LaRoche again in the fifth round of the January Draft's Secondary Phase. LaRoche signed in March and reported to Quad Cities in the Midwest League...as an outfielder. After hitting a combined .227 over two stops, however, LaRoche came back to the Midwest League as a pitcher in 1968 to start his fast ascent through the Angels' farm system.

LaRoche spent all of 1968 in the Midwest League and showed some promise. Though neither Baseball Reference nor The Baseball Cube has complete stats for him in 1968, what we do know is that his ERA was good (2.36, though with 10 unearned runs in 84 innings) and that he walked 29 versus 80 strikeouts. That was sufficient promise for the Angels to move him to the more competitive California League for 22 innings in 1969 and then to the Texas League in El Paso thereafter. Rather than getting annihilated in that noted hitters' ballpark, LaRoche put up a respectable 2.94 ERA. 

He was assigned to pitch in Triple-A Hawaii to start the 1970 season. Throughout his minor league career, he almost always was a reliever -- a position which likely hastened his promotion to the major leagues on May 11, 1970.  His first task: face Carl Yastrzemski in the top of the 16th inning. He was able to get Yaz to fly out, and, in the process, picked up his first major league win when the Angels scored a run in the bottom of the inning. 

Being a reliever, though, put LaRoche in a fairly tenuous situation on the roster, it seems. After giving up 4 runs (3 earned) 5 days after his debut, either he was sent back to Triple-A or he did not appear for a month. I'm guessing it was Triple-A. After an appearance on June 14, either he was again sent back down or, once again, did not appear for nearly a month. But, once he was back up with the Angels in July, it appears that he stayed in the major leagues for good through both 1970 and 1971. Over those two season, he had success as well -- 121-2/3 innings, 107 strikeouts against 48 walks and a 2.88 ERA (supported by FIP).

Yet, when Harry Dalton was hired by the Angels to be its general manager after the 1971 season, the first trade he made was to send LaRoche to the Minnesota Twins for infielder Leo Cardenas. Minnesota manager Bill Rigney was very happy about the trade, saying that "LaRoche just may be the best left-handed relief pitcher in the American League." Even then, however, Dalton recognized that bullpen arms are fairly fungible: "Frankly, we felt it would be easier to come up with a replacement in the bullpen than a major league shortstop."

LaRoche spent just the 1972 season with the Twins, posting a 2.83 ERA and a 5-7 record and recording 10 saves in 95-1/3 innings. The Twins got better in 1972 over 1971, but it was not enough to save Bill Rigney's job or to keep LaRoche in Minnesota. Apparently, the feeling was mutual. According to Wikipedia (quoting from The Twins at the Met), Bert Blyleven said that LaRoche told a reporter that LaRoche wanted to be the Twins' player rep for the union because "all the player reps under Calvin Griffith get traded."

So, when the season ended, LaRoche got his wish and was traded again -- exactly one year after the previous trade -- this time to the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs gave up minor league pitcher Bob Maneely, pitcher Joe Decker, and pitcher Bill Hands to get LaRoche. 

The two years that LaRoche spent on Chicago's North Side were not good. His 1973 season was one of his worst in the major leagues -- a 5.80 ERA in 54-1/3 innings (4.65 FIP) -- and 1974 was bad enough to see him start the season as a starter in Triple-A before getting called up to the majors on May 15.

So, when the Cleveland Indians offered pitcher Milt Wilcox to the Cubs for LaRoche and outfielder Brock Davis on February 25, 1975, the Cubs jumped on it. Getting out of Wrigley and back in the American League appeared to agree with LaRoche. In his two and a half seasons as an Indian, he totaled 42 saves, set an Indians team record with 21 saves in the 1976 season (which has been surpassed many, many times now), and made his first of two All-Star Game appearances of his career in 1976.

Yet, by 1977, the Indians and LaRoche had failed to work out a contract for LaRoche to play with the team past the 1977 season. As a result, the team decided to trade him. This trade took LaRoche back to Anaheim along with then-minor league pitcher Dave Schuler in exchange for Bruce Bochte, Sid Monge, and $250,000 cash. 

After the trade, LaRoche stayed in California through spring training in 1981. The Angels had signed another lefty, former Brewer pitcher Bill Travers, as a free agent in the offseason to one of the worst-ever free agent contracts. Because Travers was going to have to make the team, LaRoche was cut. Travers pitched terribly, got hurt, and never made an impact in California, and LaRoche ended up joining the Yankees.

In New York, LaRoche gained notoriety for one unorthodox pitch: the "La Lob." Rather than describe it, here's a clip from This Week in Baseball to show you Gorman Thomas flailing at it, though my favorite part of the entire clip is seeing Thomas -- the guy who lived to hit balls out of the ballpark -- attempting to BUNT the Lob for a base hit.

LaRoche finished his career with the Yankees. The 1982 season for him was one spent on the Columbus shuttle, back and forth between the Bronx, as the Yankees identified him as the pitcher no one would claim off waivers when they optioned him back to Triple-A. 

In 1983, LaRoche did not make the Yankees team out of spring training. He decided to step away from baseball for a while that year to spend time with his wife Patty, who was pregnant with son Andy. But, once Patty got past the difficult stages of her pregnancy, LaRoche hooked on with the Yankees. He made one final big-league appearance on August 23, 1983 against Oakland. He tried to make the Yankees one last time out of spring training in 1984 but failed.

Mustache Check: Nope, LaRoche is clean-shaven here.

Family Ties
As fans of today's game likely know, Dave LaRoche has two sons that played major league baseball.  The older boy, Adam, came up in the Atlanta Braves system. After playing in Pittsburgh, Boston, Atlanta, Arizona, and Washington, Adam signed a 2-year, $25 million contract to play first base for the Chicago White Sox on November 25, 2014.

Younger son Andy came up through the Dodgers system before spending three years in Pittsburgh (and playing together with his brother). Andy spent 2014 in the Toronto system at Triple-A Buffalo.  Dave cites to photos he received of the two taking practice swings together and of Andy making a play at third and throwing the runner out at first with a throw to Adam as being very rewarding to him.

Goody Two Shoes
In a 1982 news article, Dave cited to his faith and a religious experience that he and his wife Patty had gone through in 1979 as helping him to become more mellow.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I very clearly remember that La Lob thrown to Gorman Thomas and, by extension, I clearly remember Dave LaRoche. Looking at LaRoche's lifetime stats, it appears that he always pitched well against Milwaukee. Of course, considering that LaRoche spent most of his career in the AL -- and that career included a lot of bad years for Milwaukee in the early 1970s -- I'm not all that surprised.

After LaRoche did not make the Yankees in 1984, he was hired on by the Yankees as a minor league coach. He spent the 1989 and 1991 seasons as the bullpen coach for the Chicago White Sox, sandwiching a season as the White Sox pitching coach in 1990. He then moved on with his pal Jeff Torborg to the New York Mets where LaRoche spent two more seasons as a bullpen coach. 

For the rest of his working career, LaRoche was a minor-league pitching coach. Indeed, in 2014, LaRoche came out of retirement to help the New York Mets fill a gap when the Brooklyn Cyclones regular pitching coach, Tom Signore, missed time due to an injury. But, as he says on his LinkedIn page, "I am un retired for 4 months. Then back to retirement."

Maybe Adam will buy his dad a new car or something.

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