HEIGHT: 6-2, WEIGHT: 205, B/T: R/L
Generally speaking, Ryan LaMarre is the type of player I like. In fact, he's a player that I wanted the Reds to draft. Unfortunately, his professional career just hasn't played out like I hoped it would.
We all have our own built in set of preferences and favorites. When it comes to baseball players, I have always preferred certain attributes over others; certain things I simply appreciate more than others. I like a blend of tools and skills, including a healthy dose of on-base ability. I like well-rounded players, not one dimensional hitters or pure glove players. I like players who play premier defensive positions, and who play them well. And, maybe because I've always been a fan of the college game, I like college players.
Over time, I have come to recognize my preferences/biases and to guard against them improperly influencing my write-ups. They'll always be there, but since I'm aware they exist, I can minimize their influence and take a fresh look at each player being evaluated. Obviously, Ryan LaMarre ticks a lot of the aforementioned boxes, but he just doesn't grade out as favorably as I would like when evaluating him.
Even though LaMarre is a player I should and do like, the development path down which he has traveled is creating a career trajectory that is both lower and less impressive than I had originally hoped. In baseball, it's difficult to determine whether credit or blame for a player's performance should fall properly on the scouting department or player development department. In this instance, while his career is far from over, I have to question whether the player development department, more specifically the minor league coaching staff, has made the right choices with respect to LaMarre.
DRAFT POSITION AND AMATEUR CAREER
The Reds selected LaMarre out of the University of Michigan as a draft eligible junior with the 62nd overall pick in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft.
As a Wolverine, LaMarre posted the following slash lines:
Freshman - .305/.376/.404/.780 with a 25/11 K/BB ratio
Sophomore - .344/.468/.599/1.067 with a 36/33 K/BB ratio
Junior - .419/.459/.649/1.108 with a 20/5 K/BB ratio
For purposes of this write-up, the power production is particularly noteworthy. Not only did LaMarre put up numbers, but he's also a superior athlete. In high school, LaMarre earned 12 varsity letters for Lumen Christi, including four each in football, baseball, and hockey.
In short, LaMarre is a strong, fast athlete with a track record of power production.
LaMarre had a cup of coffee at double-A at the tail-end of the 2011 season and returned to that level for the entire 2012 season. For double-A Pensacola, LaMarre hit .263/.356/.353/.708 over 133 games and 482 ABs to go along with 22/3/5 2b/3b/HR, 30 steals in 40 attempts, and a 119/60 K/BB ratio.
There are a number of things to like about his performance, including an OBP that was 0.093 higher than his batting average, a solid 75% success rate on stolen bases, and a 19% line drive rate. He offers an encouraging blend of speed and patience, which is rarer than it should be in professional baseball players. At the same time, the primary problem is obvious and glaring: there's no power.
Prior to the 2012 season, LaMarre said the following:
"I feel like I am still finding out what type of player I am," LaMarre said. "In college, I hit the ball a lot harder, and some of that came with that learning curve. I changed a lot of things mid-season last year (2011) and never really found something I stuck with. This year, I'm hoping to be consistent, stay with something, and I think you'll see the power numbers go up this year."
Unfortunately, his power actually declined in 2012. In his three seasons of professional baseball, LaMarre has yet to slug over .400 in a season. And, the trend line is heading in the wrong direction. In 2010, split between low-A and high-A, LaMarre slugged .398. In 2011, split between high-A and double-A, he slugged .370. And, in 2012, exclusively at double-A, LaMarre slugged only .353. As the competition has gotten tougher, his ability to drive the ball has gotten worse.
Just for comparison sake, Billy Hamilton, who people have long feared would have the bat knocked out of his hands at the professional level, has already had seasons of .456 and .420 slugging percentages. Granted, Hamilton's speed turns singles in extra base hits at an absurd rate, so part of his slugging is speed based rather than legitimate power, but he's still showing the ability to gain bases in bunches. Something which LaMarre has yet to do.
Whether intentionally or not, LaMarre has embraced and adopted a table-setter offensive profile, but that doesn't mean that he can get away with such minimal power production at the MLB level. If he doesn't show an improved ability to drive the ball, then pitchers have no reason to fear him. If they don't fear him, then they'll just groove fastballs down the middle, which will drastically reduce his walk rate. Even table-setters, in order to be effective, have to keep the opposing pitcher honest.
While LaMarre hasn't shown any power in the past, the real concern is whether his swing will even allow him to hit for power in the future.
First, it's instructive to look at what LaMarre was doing at the plate back at the University of Michigan and compare it to what he's doing at the plate now. I'm having a very hard time seeing the wisdom of taking a swing that looks like THIS (courtesy of prospectjunkies on YouTube):
And, turning it into THIS (courtesy RedsMinorLeagues on YouTube):
Quite frankly, he looks like a completely different hitter up there. When looking at his swing coming out of college, I thought he probably needed to tighten it up (shorten the stride, get quicker to the pitch), but overall I liked what I saw. It seemed like a tweak or two might be needed, but not a major overhaul. LaMarre opted for the overhaul.
LaMarre uses a significantly wider than shoulder-width stance and a very high back elbow. In fact, his back elbow position is so high that affects his shoulder level, as his back shoulder is higher than the front, causing his bat to tilt towards the pitcher (see photo below). This tilting of both the shoulders and the bat gives him a longer path to the ball, as he has to drop the elbow, level the shoulders, and straighten the bat in the early part of the swing.
Like Jeff Gelalich, LaMarre utilizes a two phase stride. However, unlike Gelalich, LaMarre's stride is disjointed, with two separate and distinct phases. LaMarre's stride, which contains two parts, prevents the lower body from working in proper sync with the upper body. The stride seems isolated and detached from the rest of his swing. LaMarre strides forward, landing on the ball of his foot with his heel in the air and holding his foot in this position. He then rolls off the ball of his foot and brings his heel down to the ground as his hips rotate. So, he interrupts the generation of force from the transfer of the weight from back to front, then lingers in the weak position of being on the ball of his front foot before firing the hips. Also, it's questionable how effective his stride is in cocking the hips to generate load in the swing.
To complicate matters even further, before the heel of his stride foot hits the ground his arms are frequently already in motion to start his swing. He is simultaneously moving his stride foot and firing the arms to swing the bat, which is problematic considering how important a solid foundation is to the swing.
For comparison, at the plate Albert Pujols starts in a spread out position, then uses a stride that consists of raising his front foot up onto the ball of his foot and putting it right back down where it started as his hips fire, but it's one continuous, uninterrupted motion. On the other hand, LaMarre's stop-and-start stride makes the lower body action herky-jerky, robbing it of torque and power. He starts wide and gets wider, then tries to fire the swing while standing on the ball of his front foot. You can't effectively fire the hips if there's a pause between the landing of the stride foot and the firing of the hips.
In fact, LaMarre's stride seems disassociated from the rest of his swing to the extent that any force generated by the lower body largely bleeds out of the swing. This is especially problematic due to the fact that most of the power in the baseball swing is generated by the lower body, so if you hinder that action or eliminate it entirely then you are left largely with an upper body swing. And, upper body swings simply don't generate much power. The fact that LaMarre's swing significantly restricts his lower body action almost necessarily means that the generation of power will be restricted.
Overall, I still think the components are there for a fundamentally sound swing that will play at the MLB level, but the swing continues to develop in the wrong way. The swing that produced significant power in college is still in there. The ability to drive the ball still exists. In the following photo, LaMarre is actually in a very strong hitting position:
In the photo, LaMarre exhibits a solid foundation, a firm front side, his lower body action has him up on the toe of his right foot, and his right elbow is in close to his hip. In short, he's in good position to unleash the force generated by the swing. The problem remains, however, that the lower body action that precedes this position is not effective in generating the force necessary to power the swing: He simply hasn't generated enough force to impart to the baseball. There's nothing there to unleash. Instead, the lower body action creates a disjointed swing where the upper and lower halves are out of sync. So, by the time he reaches the above position, he hasn't generated sufficient rotational force to power the swing. It's very difficult to generate power without effectively incorporating the lower half, especially strong hip rotation, into the swing.
I still really believe that LaMarre would benefit from effectively reincorporating the lower-half back into his swing. He has far too much power potential to consciously sacrifice it, especially since the benefits to be reaped from his restricted lower body action are negligible, at best. Until he commits to rediscovering some power, it's difficult to project him as anything more than a 4th or 5th outfielder.
DEFENSE AND POSITIONAL VALUE
LaMarre is a very good defensive centerfielder due to his plus speed and very good athleticism (before becoming a professional baseball player, he excelled in both football and hockey). Billy Hamilton gets all the ink for his stolen base exploits, and rightfully so, but LaMarre also runs very well. While Hamilton glides over the turf, LaMarre has more physicality to his running.
LaMarre covers a lot of ground and reads the ball well off the bat. In his minor league career, he has played 270 games in center field and 45 in right field. His throwing arm is both strong and accurate and would also play well in right field. In 2011, across two levels, LaMarre tallied 16 assists. In 2012, at double-A, LaMarre collected 20 assists. So, he does well at preventing runners from taking the extra base.
|Courtesy: Chris Martin/Bakersfield Blaze|
Defense will always be a value-driver for LaMarre, which takes some pressure off the development of his bat. While he's versatile enough to handle all the outfield positions, it would be hard to justify him as a starter in a corner spot unless his power production improves.
LaMarre does so many things well that it's frustrating that he's being undone by the one thing that he isn't doing well. He has top flight athleticism, good tools across the board, the baseball specific skills necessary to translate those tools into production, and good makeup. So, the potential is there, but for him to become an impact talent, he needs to drive the ball better. He doesn't need to hit 30 homers, but 15 a year, when combined with his other attributes, would put him on track to be a potential starter at the MLB level.
For now, the best hope is that GM Walt Jocketty proves prophetic when he said this prior to the 2012 season:
"For a lot of guys, power comes later on in their careers," Jocketty said. "Right now, we want him to focus more on his hitting ability and getting on base. He eventually will hit with more power."
As it stands, the power outage lands LaMarre at #14 on the list, but if he reworks his swing and starts driving the ball consistently, then he'll quickly become a very interesting player.