What’s Gotten into Matt LaPorta?

The best hitter on the Cleveland Indians not named Choo may only have one at-bat above the five-hole this season.  After a weekend series where he went 6-for-11 with two home runs (one of which was a monster shot to left field) and four RBI, Matt LaPorta’s bat may finally be paying the dividends Mark Shapiro anticipated when acquiring him for the Cy Young-winning CC Sabathia three seasons ago.

The 25-year-old LaPorta has had a roller coaster of a career since being dealt by the Brewers.  Passed over for players like David Dellucci and Jason Michaels, the hard-swinging outfielder-turned-first baseman may have finally cemented his role with the Indians for the foreseeable future. 

Sent down to Columbus on June 7th of this year when the team activated Andy Marte, the move seemed to make sense on paper.  LaPorta was only batting .218 at the time, he seemed uncomfortable at the plate, and was relatively slow to recover from a few nagging injuries which plagued him through the offseason.  The former Florida Gator apparently took offense to the demotion and proceeded to take it out on Triple-A pitching, amassing an OPS of 1.094 with five home runs and four doubles in 18 games.

LaPorta was called up to the bigs just 20 days after his trip to Columbus and has not skipped a beat.  In 38 games through June, July and August, LaPorta has eight doubles, six home runs, 20 RBI and an OPS of .926.  While extrapolating could be a dangerous game, had LaPortabeen able to persistently pace that OPS mark through the first two months of the season, it would be good enough for fifth among AL first baseman – ahead of sluggers like Mark Teixeira and Carlos Pena.

Need any more encouraging numbers?

LaPorta, who struggled against lefties for the majority of 2009 (.211 average) has managed to hit both lefties and righties in 2010.  Though only two of his home runs have come against lefties, his slash line of .260/.375/.384 is amazingly consistent across the board than his numbers against righties (.259/.309/.408).  While he is showing a bit less power against southpaws, he has walked 14 times compared to 13 against righties in 100 fewer plate appearances.

What about high-pressure situations, or “leverage” as the WPA folks like to say?

LaPorta’s best numbers have been produced in times of high-leverage.  In 53 plate appearances when the “clutch” term can be tossed about, LaPorta has an OPS of .890 with three home runs and 14 RBI.  And if we need to see if LaPorta is as “clutch” as he is “lucky,” his BABIP is .314 in high-leverage situations – his BABIP for the 2010 season is .303, so consistency has been key.

All these numbers are great, and could be cherry-picked to a point, but what is LaPorta doing differently than in years past?

For starters, his walk rate is up considerably.  In 2009, LaPorta walked 6.1 percent of all plate appearances; through this point in 2010, he’s seen that number jump to 9.8 percent.  This may not seem impactful, but taking a BB/K rate of 33 percent to 52 percent has helped add almost 30 points to LaPorta’s on-base percentage. 

He is becoming increasingly more comfortable against starting pitchers throughout games.  Like most successful major leaguers, LaPorta has been able to learn from any mistakes he may make in his first plate appearance, increasing his OPS to .932 in his second PA against the same starter.  In fact, three of his seven home runs this season have come in his second at-bat, and his BB:K ratio is .40 in his first PA, jumping up to a combined .75 in his second and third time stepping in the batters box.

LaPorta has also encountered a bit more luck this season.  In 2009, only 28 percent of his batted balls in play resulted in a hit.  As mentioned above, LaPorta’s career mark is closer to 30 percent – jump that could be impactful to season averages over the course of an entire season. 

If there is one criticism of LaPorta’s game, it has been his relative struggles against off-speed pitches.  Hopefully, the walk-off home run on Friday night coupled with the change-up he hit over 400 feet on Sunday afternoon are signs of things to come.  Only 25-years old, LaPorta still has plenty of room to grow; an offseason working on hitting off-speed pitches could turn the slugger into a much-needed hitting machine. 

(AP Photo/David Richard)

  • http://www.dawgtalkisland.com Hooper

    I heard Mike Hegan on the radio saying when they sent him down “The Indians worked on his swing.” He was still swinging the bat the way he was because of a old injury.

  • Harv 21

    Encouraging but still premature. Two years ago he came advertised as one of the most major league-ready power hitters in the minors. Want to see him put up numbers over a whole season, start to finish, without losing confidence for weeks at a time. If he starts cold and tentative next season it will be a little late to say he’s young and still adjusting.

    Kind of interesting that we still have no idea if the trade was very good, okay or horrible. But in one more year, if Laporta is not an established power hitter at age 26, it can’t ne considered very good.

  • The Conductor

    If Dolan had any money, this guy wouldn’t even be on the team. Instead, he’d look like a left handed, 300 lb, tiny eyed, fat man about to get his rolex stolen from him by a CSU basketball player.

  • Tommy

    The fact that LaPorta has better numbers in high-leverge situations than for the rest of his career is in fact lucky, regardless of BABIP numbers. Though drawing any conclusions on what exactly his expected stat line is at this point, probably still premature. Whatever his line eventually settles in at, it would be foolish to expect him to sustain more robust stats in high leverage situations for a long period of time.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com DP

    Want to see him put up numbers over a whole season, start to finish, without losing confidence for weeks at a time. If he starts cold and tentative next season it will be a little late to say he’s young and still adjusting.

    Agree. I know it doesn’t speak volumes about someone’s strength of will, but perhaps not having to lose his job to 86-year-old Russell Freaking Branyan this off-season will help here.

  • mgbode

    on Saturday when LaPorta hit into an out to end a scoring chance, I was surprised.

    that hasn’t happened much with Indians hitters this year.

  • MattyFos

    If Laporta starts cold next season lets not close the book on him. Players sometimes start cold (not Peralta, he’s always cold) But Manny is a slow starter. He is one of the players who heats up with the weather…

  • http://twitter.com/camvanderhorst Cam

    “May finally be paying dividends?” Where the hell have you been all year, guy?! He’s been great since we traded Branyan and he got a chance to play full-time; hell I’ve been watching him since last September. Now be a good little sportswriter and when he wins some award or passes some milestone say you “believed in him the whole time” like every other hack sportswriter/caster/analyst/blogger.