The life and times of Matt LaPorta (can't miss)
May 24, 2012
The Matt LaPorta phenomenon has been a long, drawn out affair that appears to have no end or closure in sight. We are approaching the four year anniversary of the C.C. Sabathia trade. While most of the time people can declare the outcome of a deal at this point, some of us are not yet ready to do so.
Talents like LaPorta seem to have nine lives as every scout and fan that watches them sees the tools, sees the ability and waits for the results. We pray that if we give him that eighth life, he just might explode into the player we expected him to be.
This is not an uncommon trend and our unwillingness to give up on players like LaPorta comes from the pain of players like Brandon Phillips maturing after exiting our system. Perhaps the biggest argument for LaPorta is that it took Brandon Phillips four long years before he took advantage of the opportunity he had in Cincinnati and became the All-Star level second baseman he was thought to become when the Indians acquired him from the Montreal Expos back in June of 2002.
Every time I consider LaPorta and observe the slow maturation of Brandon Phillips, I then remember the flipside of the coin, Andy Marte. He was a player whose raw power and “advanced swing” never developed into the 25 home run player many expected. However, this was not for a lack of trying on the Indians side as Marte served five different stints with the big club over five seasons.
Returning to LaPorta, I in no means wish to say that he will break out like Phillips or produce numbers akin to Marte. We have already seen that from LaPorta, a shell of what we had hoped is better than Marte. I merely suggest that there is no determining time or equation that will tell us if this seasons Matt LaPorta is the first baseman we have pined for since Jim Thome’s departure in 2002.
Before looking into LaPorta’s numbers and evaluating whether a move should be made, it is important to talk about why LaPorta is being considered. Incumbent first baseman Casey Kotchman is currently riding a hot streak though is hitting a disappointing .222, and while his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is below career average, it is not irrational to submit that Tampa Bay’s astro-turf infield inflated his average on balls in play last season.
Second, the Tribe once again exited an offseason without its greatest need: a right-handed hitter with power. After watching left fielder Johnny Damon recently, it appears that it would perhaps be more wise a notion to callup LaPorta to play left field rather than first base.
The question really becomes: Are there any indicators that this year’s mashing of Triple-A pitching is any different than in the past; and if so, what is the best course of action in regard to LaPorta in the next few months?
|Matt LaPorta's Production in three Triple -A Stints|
While the time varies in length, it is clear that there are only two real important statistics to note. The first is of the negative variety. When watching LaPorta in the big leagues, it was clear that if he was going to take a step forward to become a complete hitter, it must start with patience and bat control at the plate. And excluding his 18 game stretch (small sample size) it is apparent when also viewing his stats while in Cleveland that his patience has, if anything, declined as his current 0.56 walk to strikeout ratio attests.
The second observation, however, is a reasonably positive sign even though some might tell you it is not. That is his ISO, which basically is a measurement of extra base hits per at-bat. A lot has been said about the fact that Huntington Park in Columbus is a hitter’s paradise and I cannot agree more. However, every season LaPorta has been sent to Triple-A, it has been with Columbus, his first such assignment coming in its christening season in 2009. Therefore, the trend of increasing ISO is a very positive sign even if that number is inflated because of the confines in which he competes. This idea has been an absolutely ridiculous notion to me that while his ISO continues to increase, it is irrelevant because of the stadium. Even if inflated, his increased ability to barrel the ball up should not be ignored and discounted.
Right now, LaPorta's pace in Columbus, if projected over 162 games, would have him at 56 home runs. While this is a purely ridiculous number, his increased power is worth considering, even in a bench slot where he could pick up at-bats at first base, left field and designated hitter.
Factoring in the inflation caused by Huntington Park and accepting that his batting average will never meet expectations because of a lack of discipline, I still submit that LaPorta will offer value this season. I fully believe that LaPorta can become a .250 hitter with 20 home runs at the big league level. With Kotchman’s and Damon’s struggles and the need for a right handed bat with power, anytime LaPorta gets his fourth opportunity will be the right time.
But what can I say? I just don’t want to see another player with some impact potential slip away before he matures.
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Point being, at this stage in the game, it's anybody's guess whether he should get his shot tomorrow, next month, next year, or if he should have been plugged in from day one and given the old hands-off approach to see if he could make it.
I'm not saying the latter would have worked... if anything, he'd be hovering around .250/.320/.380 range and we'd all be underwhelmed. That said, it's interesting to see that fans, media, and even player development people don't know what to think now that he's back in AAA and doing exactly what we hoped he would. He's absolutely mashing, and we're stumped.
I have no problem with him hanging out down there another couple weeks, but at some point we're going to have to see what he's got. I think we all agree that his base-level production would still be welcome in a LF/1B/DH role 5 days a week.
I still sense they have given him some specific things they want to see him doing (Atkins mentioned laying off sliders) and until he's doing them consistently he won't get back to Cleveland regardless of his numbers in Columbus.
They don't want him to become the next Jeff Manto who was up and down something like seven times and always killed AAA pitching but could never cut it in the bigs.
“The simple answer to that question is, are they challenged and are there things they can continue to work on that will ultimately give them the best chance of realizing their potential? There are a lot of variables that come into play. You think of the player holistically and not just their performance. How are they having success? What is the consistency of their routine? What is the consistency of their work habits before they get to the field? So there are so many variables that come into play when you think about pushing a player as it goes beyond the performance."
They brought LaPorta up several times already after he put up impressive numbers in Columbus but didn't get the results they wanted. I really think they've told them he can rot in AAA if he wants to keep doing it his way, and if he ever wants another shot at the bigs he needs to make those fundamental changes they think he needs to make. Just speculation on my part.
Not at first base anyway. I've watched this team win a few games on Kotchman's glove this year. I think this infield has a special chemistry. Don't break that up.
I could see him stepping in when Hafner needs to spend some time on the DL or maybe it's time to cut and run on Duncan. But I don't see a full time role for LaPorta this year unless some things go really bad for the Tribe.
His OPS last year was .711, which would look pretty good right now compared to the .572 we're getting.
I think the thing to do is assume he hasn't gotten any better going from age 26 to 27, and just ask whether the guy we had last year is an upgrade over what we have now. If it turns out he has improved, that's a bonus.
Ross Atkins was interviewed on this website a few days back and said something to the effect that they're not bringing LaPorta back until he makes the adjustments they want him to make. IOW, they're through being nice and are holding his feet to the fire. He's staying in the minors until he shows he's willing and able to do what he needs in order to be a productive ML hitter. At least that's how I understood his comments.
However, I do believe that unless Damon improves drastically in the next few weeks it is an absolute necessity that LaPorta get an opportunity in left field.
His 20% K% is very similar to what he had been doing with the Indians over the past 3 years, when at AAA previously he fluctuated around 12-14% K%. There is a book on him now on how to pitch to him. He may get away with hitting bad pitches in AAA, but once back in the Show, my guess is again he will revert back to his old self with better pitchers again commanding the strike zone onhim. BUT as Adam said, it will still be an upgrade over what we have right now.
I'd like to say that I really believe he's a new guy, but he's striking out more often than he ever has in our minor league system. I do think he will get a call up, and I think he pretty much has to be an upgrade over .572 OPS that we're currently getting from our left field mess, I just don't expect him to be much if any different than the Matt LaPorta we've seen since 2009.