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:
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:
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:
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?