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Whither LaPorta?

Whither LaPorta?
June 14, 2012
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The timing (and brevity) of Matt LaPorta’s latest recall caught my eye.  With all the injuries and lackluster performances clustered together over the past few weeks, it seems the opportunity to use LaPorta would have presented itself at some point.  Instead, it took an unusual injury to Carlos Santana and paternity leave for Johnny Damon to really prompt a promotion for LaPorta.  Meanwhile, he’s built another sterling line in Triple-A to add to his career .311/.400/.569 mark over 676 PA.

Ultimately, that got me thinking as to what LaPorta’s real role with the team is at this point.  If he can’t find a break with all the recent upheaval in the lineup, is he ever going to get regular playing time again?  LaPorta faces a lot of competition for work at first base and left field between Jose Lopez, Shelley Duncan, Casey Kotchman, Damon, and Santana (read, Lou Marson), plus just about everyone else at DH while Travis Hafner’s out. 

As I wrapped up this piece, news broke that LaPorta had been sent down to make room for recently acquired reliever Esmil Rogers.  Manny Acta noted that he’s only going with eight relievers temporarily and that LaPorta “didn't get enough at-bats this time around up here for us to make decisions.”  Acta went on to say that he realized the timing of LaPorta’s promotion was odd, given the lack of a DH in recent interleague play. 

Still, despite the lineup’s shortcomings and injuries, LaPorta has appeared in just three games since his June 3 promotion and is already back in Triple-A to make room for a long-man with a career 4.28 xFIP over 184.2 IP in the majors.  As Acta stated, LaPorta’s demotion is likely going to be a short one, but it can’t be good for a player’s confidence to get bumped for a mediocre relief pitcher after being up for little more than a week.

I believe the Indians’ opinion on LaPorta has shifted from “prospect” to the decidedly less glamorous “organizational depth.”  A prospect tends to have an auspicious future, a belief that their ceiling has yet to be reached.  With a depth player, you basically know what you’re getting.  There may be hope for a breakout based on past performance or improved health, but in the majority of cases a depth player isn’t going to impress anyone for very long.  As far as the Indians are concerned, LaPorta might as well be Duncan or Lopez (or maybe not, since he’s losing starts to them). 

The key difference, at least to Indians management, is that LaPorta still represents more than just another depth player.  As the primary return in the 2008 C.C. Sabathia trade, LaPorta was poised to fill a long-standing gap in the Tribe’s lineup and contribute to a rapid re-tooling following the team’s 2007 post-season run.  Four years later, the 27 year-old slugger’s development path will ultimately signify failure or vindication for the front office. 

This isn’t about placing blame on the architects of the Sabathia trade (not today, at least), it’s about how the team has chosen to move forward in the aftermath.  It’s been said before, but LaPorta truly has nothing left to prove in the minors.  A typical minor league breaking ball is not in the same class as a typical MLB breaking ball, which is sort of the point.  LaPorta needs to learn at the MLB level if he’s ever going to take another step forward in his career, making the old “he needs regular at-bats” line sound a bit insincere.

The tables below (broken up to due to size) show some of LaPorta’s plate discipline tendencies and his performance against different pitch types.  The pitch values show the percentage of time a pitch was thrown and the linear weight of the pitch measured in total runs per 100 pitches (wPitch/C).  Basically, a pitch value of zero is average, while a negative value is below average.  All stats were compiled on FanGraphs.com. 

Player

Season

PA

Contact%

SwStr%

O-Swing%

AL

2009

87,538

81.00%

8.40%

25.00%

LaPorta

2009

198

79.30%

9.60%

28.70%

AL

2010

86,744

81.80%

8.00%

29.00%

LaPorta

2010

425

75.80%

11.50%

33.70%

AL

2011

86,482

81.30%

8.30%

30.10%

LaPorta

2011

385

72.80%

13.80%

37.10%

 

Player

Season

Pitches

FB%

wFB/C

SL%

wSL/C

CT%

wCT/C

CB%

wCB/C

CH%

wCH/C

AL

2009

336,732

60.00%

0.3

13.80%

-0.34

5.40%

-0.66

9.10%

0.01

10.10%

0.13

LaPorta

2009

774

54.00%

0.19

16.80%

-2.36

7.40%

3.1

13.80%

-0.32

6.80%

-3.89

AL

2010

331,697

59.10%

0.16

13.80%

-0.4

5.40%

-0.11

8.70%

0.27

11.20%

-0.16

LaPorta

2010

1,624

54.70%

-0.54

19.20%

-0.13

5.70%

-1.19

9.00%

-1.6

10.30%

0.09

AL

2011

332,207

58.30%

0.17

13.50%

-0.29

6.10%

-0.31

9.40%

0.2

10.60%

0.21

LaPorta

2011

1,481

49.20%

0.47

22.50%

0.07

7.90%

0.88

9.40%

-1.33

10.20%

-0.83

FB = fastball, SL = slider, CT = cutter, CB = curveball, CH = changeup

I wanted to use the overall American League numbers as a baseline to evaluate LaPorta’s own performance in his first three major league seasons.  Keeping in mind that all AL plate appearances are included for each year, take a look at how much more often LaPorta swings through pitches (SwStr) and reaches outside the strike zone for pitches (O-Swing) compared to his peers.  He’s been well above average in those categories every year, which is probably consistent with what you’ve seen from his approach at the plate.  It can be awfully tough to reach base if you swing through that many pitches and don’t take those outside balls.

Next, let’s examine what types of pitches have been inciting his undisciplined approach.  LaPorta saw a steep drop in the percentage of fastballs thrown to him in 2011 even as he began to hit the heater with authority that season.  He’s had considerable difficulty with the curveball though, posting some pretty miserable numbers over his career. 

As you can see, pitchers took notice of LaPorta’s struggles against sliders, cutters, and curves and tend to throw those against him more than usual.  Oddly enough, he’s made positive strides against the slider and still sees a lot, so perhaps LaPorta is starting to get ahead of the curve (ha!) in some areas.  Still, his spotty plate discipline and seemingly poor pitch identification is troubling.

I believe the contrast between LaPorta’s MLB plate discipline issues and his sparkling performance in the minors backs up my earlier point.  It may take a while, but LaPorta is never going to put it together unless he continues to face major league pitching (especially breaking balls) on a regular basis.  He’s clearly too good for whatever the kids in the minors are tossing at him, otherwise there wouldn’t be such a disparity in performance.

If the team has truly soured on LaPorta, they might as well let him continue to terrorize minor league pitchers to see if another team can be enticed into a trade.  Otherwise, now is the time to use him.  I understand why Manny Acta is hesitant to bench his incumbent first baseman, despite a poor showing at the plate so far.  Following a brutal April (.494 OPS), Kotchman managed to sniff his career average with a .720 OPS in May.  Odds are, this is as good as it gets for Kotchman on offense and 2011 was the aberration that many suspected.  However, his defense has been a steadying presence (though not spectacular) and with such a ground-ball heavy pitching staff the decision to keep Kotchman’s glove in the lineup at the expense of his bat is reasonable.

By comparison, the situation in left field is a rather flimsy excuse to exclude LaPorta.  He came up through the system as an outfielder and should be at least as effective defensively as Duncan and Damon.  It’s not like there are any web gems in the rough out in left field right now.  LaPorta’s defensive position has been altered to fit the team’s needs in the past and there’s little reason he couldn’t have covered the position with Duncan coming off the bench.  I’m willing to cut Damon some slack since he essentially got his spring training on the fly, though I’m of the opinion that 38-year olds on wonky contracts need to eventually perform to justify their place in the starting lineup.

Which brings us to the DH position.  A knee injury has kept Hafner out of action since May 24 and his subsequent surgery will leave the DH slot open until at least mid-July.  Given his difficulty in recovering from past injuries, I’d bet on Hafner missing even more time than that though.  The convergence of Hafner’s rehab, Santana’s concussion, and interleague play is unfortunate, but with Santana back behind the dish and only four interleague road games left entering Thursday there is still plenty of time to give LaPorta a shot as DH. 

This is LaPorta's last option year, meaning he will need to clear waivers to be outrighted to the minors in 2013.  Assuming he's in the team's plans for next season, they'll have to keep him on the major league roster or risk losing him on the waiver wire.  However if Cleveland fails to test him in 2012, you enter 2013 with major question marks at first base (Kotchman’s on a one year deal), DH (Hafner has a $13M club option that is unlikely to be exercised), and left field (always) with a still unproven 28-year old slugger who may have otherwise fit comfortably into one of those roles. 

Regardless of the organization’s current opinion of LaPorta, they’ll have to make a decision on his future soon.  A dearth of playing time over the next month or an extended trip back to Columbus would confirm my suspicion that the team has turned the page on him.  I don’t think playing LaPorta on a regular basis is going to drag down the offense any more than playing Duncan, Lopez, or Damon has already.  If Manny Acta has the patience to sit through some of the slumps we’ve seen this season, I find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t be open to giving LaPorta a legitimate chance while Hafner recovers (at a minimum). 

A lot has been written over the significance of a player’s age 27 season and I think that holds true for LaPorta as well.  He’s a finished product at Triple-A and the team is going to need a first baseman next year.  If he is truly a bust, then this franchise needs to make a clean break from the Sabathia trade and explore serious options for first base and left field if they hope to compete with the rest of the division over the next few seasons.  If Cleveland refuses to play LaPorta when given a final opportunity, then they’ll likely deserve the fallout if he goes on to thrive in another uniform.  Either way, a decision needs to be made.

User Comments

Rich
June 15, 2012 - 9:11 AM EDT
The fact that his swinging strike percentage has INCREASED from 9.6% to 13.8% from 2009 to 2011 shows LaPorta is not progressing, in fact, he appears to be regressing. That's an increase in swings-and-misses of nearly 44%! Astonishing.

My take is that the Indians are well aware that LaPorta is not improving and cannot be an every day player as long as he continues to chase breaking balls outside the strike zone.

The only reason they brought him up was because the combination of Hafner and Santana being injured plus Damon's paternity absence all occuring at the same time left them temporarily short-handed and they needed an extra bat. That explains why he didn't play and was sent back down when Santana and Damon returned. This wasn't another opportunity to show he finally "got it". They can see he hasn't changed just by watching him hit against AAA pitching.

I agree - it appears he's no longer considered a prospect. He's Beau Mills only with a better bat.
Tony
June 14, 2012 - 5:45 PM EDT
And Ron, I agree.....12 pitchers is a bit much, but 13? And on the the road in interleague play to boot!
Tony
June 14, 2012 - 5:44 PM EDT
First off, another very good piece as always Brian. In any case, I am not sure if management saw enough of anything to make a true evaluation. Sounds like their minds were already made up before they even called him up.
James
June 14, 2012 - 1:37 PM EDT
Can Josh Tomlin play left field?
Ron
June 14, 2012 - 12:48 PM EDT
Bad roster management continues. Why in the world do you need 13 pitchers on your staff? LaPorta needs his last shot before decisions are made.
Mike
June 14, 2012 - 12:43 PM EDT
And to think the Indians were able to tell that based off of 11 at bats this year. Yet we have to watch Johnny Damon and his .540 OPS because he's a veteran and didn't have a spring training? Give me a break.
Dennis
June 14, 2012 - 12:08 PM EDT
I agree with your comments. I guess management did not see enough improvement in Matt's approach to warrant more playing time. Being sent back to Columbus can not be good for his psych. By his own admission he has pressed when in Cleveland because of his place in the place in the CC trade. You need to relax not stress when hitting. I saw Matt play in the Cape league and always wish all the former White Caps no matter who they play for a great major league future. Hopefully Matt can improve his approach and get a good chance to prove he is a major league player even if it is not with the tribe.

Go tribe.

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