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Monday, May 01, 2006

Better Know a Red #13 - Jason LaRue

In part 13 of our 25-part series, Better Know a Red, we turn our attention to the Reds' grizzly 32-year old catcher, Jason LaRue. LaRue was signed by the Cincinnati Reds in the 5th round of the 1995 amateur draft out of Dallas Baptist University, Texas. LaRue rose steadily through the Reds' major league system, eventually making his debut with the Reds in 1999 at age 25. Two years later, he had secured his position as the Reds' starting catcher, a position he retains today. LaRue has developed a reputation as a power-hitting catcher with a good arm but limited other defensive skills. He has steadily improved at the plate, and while his arm may not be what it was as a rookie, reports are that his other defensive abilities have gotten better as well. Last year, in what may turn out to be a career year at the plate, he combined with Javier Valentin to make the best-hitting catching tandem in baseball.

For additional biographical information, please see LaRue's entry in Red Hot Mama's Human League.

Historical Statistics (for explanations of all the statistics used in this entry, please see the Baseball Statistics Quicksheet).
2003/CIN 436 3.36 3/50% 0.321 0.422 0.743 0.250 0.253 8.6 ---
2004/CIN 443 4.15 0/0% 0.334 0.431 0.765 0.258 0.259 15.7 ---
2005/CIN 417 2.46 0/0% 0.355 0.452 0.806 0.273 0.277 22.7 26/14/18
LaRue has been a very steady presence in the Reds' lineup, varying only 26 plate appearances across the past three seasons. Furthermore, he has steadily improved his numbers each year since his first full season in 2001. Last year, however, he showed a fairly dramatic increase in his productivity. His K/BB ratio was way down, and his OBP and SLG increased substantially resulting in far better OPS, EqA, and VORP. If LaRue continues to produce at this level over the next few years, the Reds will have a tremendous asset on their hands. A big part of the reason that the Reds score so many runs is that there is no automatic out in their starting eight. Good hitting catchers are not an easy thing to come by, and LaRue's productivity eliminates a very common offensive hole from our lineup.

'03-'05 Splits:
vs Left 357 2.31 0.339 0.438 0.777 0.262
vs Right 930 3.77 0.339 0.433 0.772 0.261
Home 651 3.64 0.321 0.415 0.736 0.248
Away 636 2.86 0.357 0.456 0.812 0.274
LaRue is one of those rare players that don't show much, if any, left/right split. While his K/BB ratio is much higher against right-handers than lefties, his OBP, SLG, OPS, and GPA are all almost identical. His Home/Away splits indicate that LaRue has been a far superior hitter away from home over the past three years. GABP tends to favor fly-ball hitters over ground-ball hitters. LaRue seems about average in his ground ball/fly ball split (~2 ground balls per fly ball), so it is somewhat surprising to see such a dramatic difference. I don't have a good explanation for it.

Pos. Year Level DI's PintoGB (+-runs) Passed Balls/150g Caught Stealing CS% ERAeffect
C 2003 MLB 954 --- 8.5 17 26.6% -0.01
C 2004 MLB 930 --- 21.8 16 29.6% -0.27
C 2005 MLB 915 0.00158 8.9 25 32.9% 0.11
In LaRue's first two full years with the Reds, he threw out 60.9% and 45.2% of all baserunners--absolutely spectacular numbers. Ivan Rodriguez, who has a well-deserved reputation as the best-throwing catcher in the major leagues over the past decade, has averaged 48.3% caught stealing (best year was '01 with 60.3%), so those initial years were very comparable. While the rest of his defensive game wasn't quite at that level, the Reds thought they would have a legitimate stud catcher for years to come if he could improve the rest of his defensive game. Therefore, LaRue's sub-par 2003 performance against base-stealers was very disappointing. He has improved since then--last year he succeeded in keeping opposing base-stealers from profiting from their efforts--however he does not seem to have the fantastic arm that he did early in his career.

In other areas of his game, LaRue seems generally average. Pitchers do not tend to have a better or worse ERA when he is behind the plate, so he seems to call a good enough game and handle pitchers adequately. He gets out of the box to field ground-balls fairly well, ranking 6th among starting catchers last year. One area in which LaRue has consistently been critiqued, however, is his poor ability to prevent passed-balls. His '04 season was dreadful in this regard, though he was not quite as bad in '03 or '05. Nevertheless, I'd be concerned with him behind the plate if the Reds tried out a knuckleballer again.

PECOTA75 335 2.62 0/0% 0.346 0.473 0.819 0.274 0.274 17.8
PECOTA 333 2.75 1/50% 0.327 0.431 0.758 0.255 0.256 9.3
PECOTA25 345 2.96 1/100% 0.295 0.362 0.657 0.223 0.224 -3.3
ZiPS 408 3.09 1/50% 0.336 0.430 0.766 0.259 --- ---
Even though LaRue has improved each year at the plate since he became a starter, both projection systems predict a decline for LaRue this year. Indeed, PECOTA predicts a massive range of potential outcomes to his season, from continued steady improvement (OPS@0.819, EqA@0.274), to slight decline (OPS@0.758, EqA@0.256), to catastrophic implosion (OPS@0.657, GPA@0.224). This is likely driven by the fact that LaRue is getting to an age -- 32 -- when a lot of catchers start to decline, sometimes very quickly. He hasn't had an overly-harsh workload in his career, so it does seem likely that LaRue will remain effective for a few more years. Nevertheless, the Reds should be prepared for the possibility that his value could almost completely evaporate this season.

In what could be interpreted as an initial effort to combat this, the Reds acquired Dave Ross during spring training. Ross, a right-hander, could probably contribute to a reasonably effective platoon with the switch-hitting Javier Valentin if, say, LaRue were to be traded. In fact, I'd go so far to say that a trade of LaRue is likely. As an effective-hitting and defensively-capable catcher, he definitely has to have some value, particularly as injuries begin to occur to contending teams' starting catchers. LaRue has a better track record and is more obviously a starting catcher than is Valentin, who has poor numbers against left-handers. Finally, he is also at a position where the Reds have clear redundancy, with even manager Jerry Narron admitting that it will be difficult to find everyone sufficient playing time.

If he is not traded, it is difficult to imagine the Reds carrying three catchers all season. The struggles of our pitching staff necessitate carrying 12 pitchers, putting reservist position player spots at a premium. Even the versatility of guys like Ryan Freel and Rich Aurilia can't completely make up for the challenge of, say, carrying a player or two with day-to-day injuries for several days in a row. A move seemingly has to be made this season. Hopefully it will be one that brings some value in return, rather than simply designating Ross for assignment and losing him via waivers.

Baseball Archive, The
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Baseball Prospectus
Baseball Prospectus '06 Annual
Baseball Reference
Baseball Think Factory
CBS Sportsline
Fan Graphs
Fielding Bible
Hardball Times '06 Annual