April 20, 2014

Counting on Matt

Believe it or not, it’s been two and a half years since the Indians moved CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers for a package of players intended to “reload” the team for its next cycle of contention.  As the team saw the situation, moving Sabathia was the lesser of two evils, since they had good reason to believe they wouldn’t be able to sign him in free agency when going up against the big boys.

Sure enough, after CC suggested he wanted to stay in Cleveland, he told friends he wanted to sign in Milwaukee.  Then he wanted to play close to home in California.  Then he wanted to play in the NL so he could hit.  Then, quite obviously, he signed with the New York Yankees for the richest pitcher-contract in baseball history.

So it’s difficult to blame the Indians for moving him.  After all, when CC left Milwaukee, the Brewers were left with only two compensatory draft picks.  Hoping to get more for their big prize, the Indians moved him for four players: Matt LaPorta, Rob Bryson, Zach Johnson, and a player to be named, who turned into Michael Brantley.

But according to Shapiro, at the time of the trade, LaPorta was the key player he targeted.  He acknowledged that seven teams were in on the bidding for Sabathia, but the Brewers’ package, once it included LaPorta, was the best package for the Tribe.

So while 23 year old Michael Brantley looks to be growing into a viable major leaguer and Rob Bryson, only 22, had a nice 2010 season in the minors (80K in 53.1 innings), the centerpiece of the deal still looks to be LaPorta.  And any evaluation of the trade will hinge on the value LaPorta can bring to the club going forward.

LaPorta will enter the 2011 season at 26 years old—an age where most power bats have already established their major league viability (Prince Fielder had 160 major league HR by his age 26 season).  Needless to say, LaPorta has yet to prove that he can hit major league pitching.  In 579 big league plate appearances (about a full season), LaPorta has a .232/.306/.384 line.  Those are numbers you might tolerate from a slick-fielding SS who saves runs with his glove, but not from a lumbering first baseman with little-to-no defensive value.  In short, LaPorta must adjust next season, or his big league career could be in serious jeopardy.

And in looking over his minor league numbers, there’s some reason for optimism.  In AAA, LaPorta hit .310/.400/.548 with 22 HR in 407 at bats.  He certainly has the upside, but each time he gets slotted into a big league lineup, he seems to disappoint.

The question, obviously, is why LaPorta has failed to adjust.  In looking over his numbers, I found two related issues: his strikezone control and his ability to hit for power.

During his minor league career, LaPorta struck out 171 times over 1,037 plate appearances for a K-rate of 16.5%.  As he ascended to AAA, that rate seemed to dip: in his 474 AAA plate appearances, he struck out 66 times for a K-rate of 13.9%.  Similarly, his walk rates were consistently high throughout his minor league career: 10.7% for his MiLB career and 11.4% in AAA.  Needless to say, those numbers haven’t translated to the big leagues.  Check this out:

MiLB AAA MLB
K% 16.5% 13.9% 21.4%
BB% 10.7% 11.4% 9.3%

In the majors, LaPorta is striking out nearly twice as often as he did in AAA, and he’s walking less often than ever.  That combination is surely part of the reason his numbers have plummeted in Cleveland.

But to dig deeper, let’s look into some of LaPorta’s plate discipline stats.  You’ll remember that O-Swing% measures the percent of pitches outside of the strikezone that a batter swings at, while O-Contact% measures how often a batter actually makes contact on those swings.  Here are LaPorta’s numbers in 2010, along with the MLB average:

O-Swing% O-Contact%
LaPorta 32.8% 59.8%
MLB Average 29.3% 66.7%

Not only does he swing at bad pitches more often than most players, but when he does swing at those pitches, he makes contact less than 60% of the time, compared to the ML average of 67%.  Both of these notions suggest that LaPorta is well below-average at controlling the strikezone.  Whether that’s a problem of pitch recognition or simply being over-matched by major league pitching, I can’t say, but those numbers need to change if LaPorta is ever going to get back to hitting the ball with authority.

Which brings me to the second glaring difference between his minor and major league careers: his power numbers.  One quick and dirty way to measure a player’s extra-base hit ability is to subtract his batting average from his slugging percentage.  This number is called isolated power, or ISO for short.  Any number above .200 is good (Grady’s career ISO is .203; Jim Thome’s is .281), any number below .100 is Vizquelian (Omar has a .082 career ISO; Asdrubal Cabrera’s is .112).

Here are LaPorta’s ISO numbers throughout his career:

  MiLB AAA MLB MLB Avg
ISO 0.267 0.238 0.153 0.146

Again, throughout the minors, LaPorta demonstrated top-tier power potential, with an ISO well over .200 in each year of his career.  But immediately upon his promotion to the big leagues, his power stroke was gone.

This season, LaPorta’s ISO sits at .134.  The only AL first basemen who trail him are Daric Barton of the A’s (who has an OPS over .800) and Casey Kotchman of the Mariners (who lost his job to…gulp…the Russ Bus).  Just to make you throw up in your mouth consider this: Ryan Garko’s career ISO is .159.  And you didn’t think Ryan Garko was better than anyone at anything!

I would suggest that these two issues are related—that LaPorta’s inability to recognize pitches has caused him to be more tentative at the plate, resulting in lower power numbers.

But whatever the cause, the Indians need to address the issue—and soon.  While they are loathe to make any proclamations about a hitter after only 500 big league plate appearances, we’re getting close to the point of no-return with LaPorta.  If he doesn’t hit next season, he probably won’t ever become the hitter they envisioned when they moved Sabathia.

And if he doesn’t adjust soon to a viable, middle-of-the-order bat, some of us will begin to wonder: what could we have gotten with those compensatory draft picks?

  • J-Dub

    This guy will have a huge say in how the 2011 Indians perform and I think it’s a little early to say this trade was a failure. He started coming around in the 2nd half and next year he hopefully breaks out. I’m assuming the lineup will look something like this…

    CF Grady
    SS Cabrera
    RF Choo
    C Santana
    DH Hafner(sigh)
    1B Laporta
    3B Chisenhall
    2B Valbuena (longer sigh)
    LF Brantley

    If we can assemble a decent starting rotation there is enough potential in the top of that order that might allow us to compete for the AL Central. This blue and red koolaid tastes good…

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Jon

    @ J-Dub:

    Agree with you on LaPorta’s importance. I’m not ready to give up on him yet either, but next year has to be a good one. As they say, it gets late pretty early for 26 year old bats.

    But I don’t think Chisenhall will be in Cleveland until June at the earliest, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he spends all of 2011 in AAA. He doesn’t have an AB above AA yet, and I don’t see them rushing him up. I’m predicting a stopgap free agent signing for thirdbase.

  • mgbode

    please put Cord Phelps in any and all lineups at 2B for 2011. I don’t think he’s the long term answer, but he’s leading Columbus to a AAA title and why not have a little hope built in for next year.

  • JD

    I’ll disagree slightly with #1, and say the lineup next year looks something like this:

    LF Brantley
    SS Cabrera
    RF Choo
    C Santana
    CF Sizemore
    DH Hafner/Duncan
    1B LaPorta
    3B Nix/Random FA
    2B Donald/Nix/Corpse

    Brantley’s actually hitting a respectable .289/.344/.370 since July 15th – I see him getting first crack at the leadoff spot next year, which will give Sizemore a chance to bat lower and drive in some runs.

    I can totally see Duncan platooning with Hafner next year to give him some time off and keep his shoulder healthyish. This year Hafner is hitting .272/.375/.464 against RHP and Duncan is hitting .286/.353/.558 vs. LHP. Those two, fused together, wouldn’t make a half bad player (until you factor in Hafner’s contract, ugh).

    If LaPorta produces, I agree that this lineup has the ability to approach mediocrity…which might actually produce some relatively interesting games next year, because the young pitching actually seems somewhat promising.

    But there’s no doubt that those last two spots in the lineup (3B/2B) are going to be complete black holes next year. Maybe 3B can be plugged via free agency stop-gap (Inge?), but I just don’t see the team turning the reigns over to the Chiz (he of 0 ABs above AA) until 2012 (or late 2011 at the earliest). As for 2B, I guess we’ll have to hold out hope for either Cord Phelps/Jason Kipnis, though I think Kipnis is the better option there and he’s not going to be in Cleveland until 2012 either.

    Can this team compete in the AL Central with two black holes in its lineup? Perhaps. Either way, it’ll be an upgrade over the 6-7 black holes the Indians seemingly run out there every night. But if LaPorta is a bust, then I just don’t see how Santana and a healthy Sizemore add the extra 100 or so runs this team needs to produce a league average offense.

  • Sean Coakley

    Tim Couch

  • mgbode

    can we resign Branyan for 3B as our stopgap? Shapiro loves trading that guy.

    seriously though, I sort of hope Hodges is ready to be that stop-gap 3B.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Scott

    “I sort of hope Hodges is ready to be that stop-gap 3B.”

    Hodges hasn’t played a single game at 3B this year…

  • mgbode

    well that explains why his fielding %’s went up (and shows how closely I follow our minor league teams other than looking at their stat pages)

    thanks for the correction.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com DP

    Some notes:

    Hodges has been a 1B/DH all season, and was DFA’d this year (in other words, he’s off the 40-man). [DP Correction: According to the Clippers, Hodges is still on the 40-man. My mistake.] He’ll be 27 soon. See above.

    I still give Brantley the nod both as the leadoff man AND in CF until Sizemore can prove his wheels ain’t damaged. Brantley’s arm is better, too.

    Phelps may not be ready. That said, he may have to be in the discussion, because they also have Jason Kipnis breathing down his neck in AA (and now even with Columbus in the Finals). It’s a nice problem to have, as Phelps is only 23 and had a solid second half in Columbus.

    Chisenhall probably spends all year at AAA in 2011. Jared Goedert *might* get a shot as the stop-gap, but he doesn’t have the pedigree of even an Andy-Marte-circa-2006, and after tearing the cover off the ball all through June he slumped pretty much all of July and August in Columbus. He’s also brutal at third base defensively.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com DP

    Also, mgbode, there’s a “Clip Show” for that.
    :-)

  • Harv 21

    Interesting stats, Jon.

    What I notice about him is his streakiness, particularly his inability to get out of a slump, or stay in a groove. If his bat speed is adequate for this level, and he had very good plate discipline in college and in the minors, maybe it suggests the problem is between his ears. And that would really surprise since Shapiro was touting what great make up he had when we got him.

  • SxDx

    @ #5 LOL, Tim Couch!!!

    I dont think Couch could cut it in the big leagues though, seeing as they actually test for steroids now.

  • destiny_driven

    Send LaPorte to a sports psychologist, then have his eyes checked thoroughly, find him someone that he can lose his virginity to, and then give him one full season in the lineup come Hell or high water. If the guy doesn’t produce, then you can say that we bought a pig in a poke. Take away all of the excuses and if he can’t do it in the next two seasons, let him rot in the minors.

    Haven’t the Indians traded enough talent to where the team should be improving by now? Perhaps the problem is not the players, but the guy who keeps getting taken in these trades!