Friday, February 22, 2013

#502 - Dave LaRoche

No action card this time but not for a lack of trying by its subject. Dave LaRoche shows his delivery in Candlestick. But this photo was taken years before Dave began tossing his Lalob pitch, the one that got him his YouTube exposure. He may have been able to use that pitch during his time with the Cubs, the only team for which he pitched and had subpar results. He’d come to Chicago after the ’72 season for pitchers Bill Hands and Joe Decker after having a pretty good run back in the AL as a reliever. Dave’s main pitches back then were a fastball, a slider, and a forkball, and he put up good numbers because the last two pitches balanced the first one. But the Cubbies wanted all fastballs all the time and Dave overthrew while there, giving up lots of homers, putting up high ERA’s, and not too many saves. In ’73 he only had four. His record was pretty nice that year but it fell to 5-6 in ’74, a year he started his first games up top. His control continued to waver and though he got into twice as many innings he only put up five saves and spent some time back in the minors. About the only thing that did go well during that time was his batting average which was .355 during his two seasons there. All those stats may have had him longing for time back in the outfield again.

Dave LaRoche played the big three sports while at West Torrance High School in California. He was a placekicker in football and in baseball played second base and outfield and pitched a bit. After his senior year of ’66 he was drafted by the Angels but he passed to go to UNLV on a hoops and baseball scholarship. But when California drafted him again the following January in a significantly better round and offered up more bucks, Dave bit and left school and his scholarship to play ball. That summer he hit .227 with not too much power in A ball while playing the outfield. So there wasn’t too much resistance when he was moved the next year to the mound. In that role he did much better at the same level, going 5-7 with a 2.36 ERA mostly in relief and almost a K an inning at the same level. In ’69 he split time between A and Double A, adding nine saves to his card numbers and doing a better job at the higher level. Then in ’70 he killed at Triple A with a perfect record, miniscule ERA, and five saves before a May call-up.

LaRoche had a pretty stunning debut, coming in the 16th inning at home against Boston with two outs, the bases loaded, and a full count on Carl Yastrzemski. He was a little surprised when catcher Joe Azcue called for a slider, then not his best pitch, but he delivered, getting Yaz to ground out and picking up his first win when California scored in the bottom of the inning. He put together a fine rookie season, getting four saves in mostly setup work. His sophomore year he added a win and nine saves as he worked his way into the closer role and after the season went to Minnesota for Leo Cardenas, who the Angels grabbed to replace Jim Fregosi. With the Twins Dave again served as closer, putting up ten saves while recording another excellent ERA. Then came the two not fun years with the Cubs from which he was rescued early in ’75 spring training when he went to Cleveland with outfielder Brock Davis for pitcher Milt Wilcox in a steal for the Tribe. Dave picked up where he left off in ’72, re-establishing himself as one of the AL’s best closers and winning the team’s player of the year award by going 5-3 with a 2.19 ERA, 17 saves, and 94 K’s in 82 innings. He followed that up in ’76 with his first All-Star season, going 1-4 with a 2.24 ERA, 21 saves, and 104 strikeouts in 96 innings. That season he and Jim Kern made an effective bullpen duo as Frank Robinson seemed to be generating an improving team. But that all crashed in ’77 when the rotation blew up. Dave wasn’t immune as he again put up a K an inning but his ERA bloated early in the season and that May he returned to California for Sid Monge, Bruce Bochte, and a bunch of cash. Back home his numbers got a lot better as he recorded 13 saves in a mid-year splurge that took him to another All-Star appearance. In ’78 despite a mid-year back injury he got himself up among the league leaders again with a 10-9 season with a 2.82 ERA and 25 saves. But then in ’79 just as the Angels were making their big playoff push, Dave went cold. Part of it was due to his back, part to being randomly used, but most was just general ineffectiveness. That year he went 7-11 with ten saves but double the amount of homers in less innings than ’78 contributed to an ERA well above 5.00. In ’80 as the team sort of fell apart he took on a swing role, going 3-5 with a much better 4.08 ERA with nine starts among his 52 games. But that wasn’t the role for which he was signed and in spring training of ’81 he was released.

Shortly thereafter LaRoche was picked up by the Yankees, which was fortunate for Dave because it reunited him with coach Jeff Torborg who had previously worked well with Dave as a catcher in Anaheim and a coach in Cleveland. Torborg got Dave back on track and in ’81 he had a nice year as a setup guy, going 4-1 with a 2.49 ERA. He made his second post-season appearance that fall, throwing a shutout inning against the Dodgers. ’82 would be a revolving door season as Dave shuttled back and forth between NY and Triple A Columbus, getting called up six times during the season. He pitched well enough, going 4-2 with a 3.42 ERA, but what drew him attention was the usage of his Lalob pitch, a high-arcing slow pitch that can be seen on YouTube in a strikeout of Gorman Thomas. It would be part of his swan song as a pitcher as after one appearance in ’83 he was cut loose. Dave finished with a 65-58 record, with a 3.53 ERA, a complete game, and 126 saves. When he retired he was the all-time Angels saves leader with 65. In the post-season he had a 3.86 ERA in just over a couple innings with three strikeouts. And he hit .246 during his career.

LaRoche got right into coaching after he played, kicking off in the Yankees system in ’84. He finished out ’86 back in NY then in ’87 moved to the Toronto system and in ’88 to the Mets one. From ’89 to ’91 he was the White Sox pitching coach and from ’92 to ’93 the Mets bullpen coach. He stayed in the NY system through ’95 when he took a few years away from baseball to concentrate on his work in real estate, which he did in off-seasons since playing. He also wanted to spend more time with sons Andy and Adam, both of whom have done MLB time and are currently playing ball. Dave returned to coaching in 2002, putting in three years in the KC system. Since 2005 he has been a coach in the Toronto system and he is currently the pitching coach of the Las Vegas 51’s, the team’s Triple A franchise.

All these back bits were covered above except the first one which occurred the summer after his senior year in high school. Dave’s lineage is actually Mexican but he adopted his stepdad’s surname when he was young.

These guys missed each other with the Tribe by a few years:

1. LaRoche and Ray Fosse ’76 to ’77 Indians;
2. Fosse and Eddie Leon ’69 to ’72 Indians.

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