April 23, 2014

Jon & Paul Plus Baseball: What to do about Matt LaPorta

In the second installment of our ongoing series with Paul Cousineau of the DiaTribe (introductions here and here), Paul and I decided to tackle the Matt LaPorta situation.

Three years ago, Mark Shapiro said that he had up to seven teams interested in C.C. Sabathia* but the Indians were smitten with a young budding superstar first baseman, and the Brewers owned his rights.  Shapiro said the deal hinged on LaPorta, and without him, a trade might not have gotten done.

*Yes, Sabathia had periods back then, menopause’ll do that to you

Fast forward three years, and here we are.  LaPorta has 162 major league games under his belt, and his numbers are, to say the least, underwhelming.  Furthermore, at nearly 26 years old, he’s supposed to be on the cusp of his offensive prime.

Needless to say, Paul and I are worried.  And when we’re worried, we do what any sentient, time-wasting adults do: we email.  Enjoy:

PAUL – In light of all of the talk that “internal improvement” is where the current Indians are going to take steps toward contention in the coming years, something keeps rattling around in the back of my head regarding a RH bat and one Matthew Vincent LaPorta. It has now been 2 ½ years since the Tribe acquired the man that Ozzie Guillen lovingly referred to as “Matola” (while insinuating that he was fat in the same sentence), with LaPorta arriving to the Tribe as a “near-ready-MLB” bat.

As we sit here today, LaPorta has played in exactly 162 MLB games with 623 PA under his belt and the .232/.307/.388 (.694 OPS) line that he’s compiled as an Indian doesn’t exactly scream “near-ready-MLB” bat, nor does it portend a future as an impact MLB bat. While patience is certainly a virtue with these young players, a MAJOR concern here is that LaPorta turns 26 in the second week of January and, just for some level of comparison, even Ryan Garko (the player whom LaPorta represented an “upgrade” over) had at least found some success by posting a .825 OPS, albeit in 51 games, before his 26th birthday.

Have injuries (in 2010) and some questionable usage (in 2009) played a role in LaPorta posting these underwhelming totals? Sure, but why did LaPorta crush AAA pitching in 2010 (1.047 OPS in the 18 games he spent there) if injuries were really a major factor, and did the level of competition have a greater effect than we’d all like to acknowledge?

Realizing the chasm beneath LaPorta in terms of 1B prospects (although Weglarz could probably slot over there) and, more importantly RH hitting prospects and players (as Choo, Sizemore, Brantley, Kipnis, Chisenhall, AND Weglarz are LH) in the organization, I suppose this is a roundabout way of borrowing a “famous” quote from a wildly overrated, barely good movie that somehow won a couple of Oscars and wondering…what if this is as good as it gets with LaPorta?

JON – In response to your concluding question, if this is as good as it gets, LaPorta will not be in the Major Leagues after 2011.  I mean, if he never gets better than a below average defensive 1B with sub-.700 OPS, he’s going to be falling back on that degree in… RECREATION AND EVENT MANAGEMENT!!???!! one!  For his sake, he better improve; the event management business just ain’t what it used to be.

And, as you mention, there’s plenty of reason to believe he will: his minor league pedigree couldn’t be stronger, and every time he gets sent down, he mashes his way back up again.  The problem is that his major league sample size is approaching relevance.  And it really stinks.

I thinks it’s clear this is a make-or-break year for LaPorta, and the organization is going to give him a season of (fairly) uninterrupted time at first base to prove his case.  No more excuses about the I-71 shuttle.  No more excuses about hips and toes.  No more Russ-Bus to send him to the utility role he so despised last year.

So if it’s clear that if he doesn’t improve, then his career could be over, let’s consider a different question.  How much improvement does LaPorta need to demonstrate to convince you that he can be a 1B on a contending club?  Does he need an OPS over .750? .800?  20 HR?  OBP above .330?  What are our benchmarks not for success, but for mere viability?

I can’t believe it’s come to this, but I’m afraid it has.  What say you?

PAUL - The idea of a “make-or-break year” for LaPorta sounds absurd on the surface given that he’s only played in 162 MLB games, but I think that it is absolutely valid, based on his track record to date and his age. If he puts up another OPS that hovers around .700, then the Indians need to look for alternatives, regardless of what it would say about the CC trade a mere 3 ½ years later. It scares me that his closest comp on B-Ref at his age and experience level is one Pete O’Brien (most memorable on the North Coast for being part of the Julio-to-Texas deal, arriving on The Reservation with Oddibe McDowell and The Guv’nor, Mr. Jerry Browne) in that O’Brien hovered around that .800 OPS number from ages 26 to 29 with his “career” year coming as a 28-year-old, when he posted a .854 OPS on the strength of 23 HR before slowly sliding into uselessness (as an Indian, no less) as the years passed.

My fear is that that’s what we’re looking at with LaPorta and it segues into your question of what should reasonably be expected of LaPorta in 2011 for him to make a compelling case that he can be that “1B on a contending club”? I’d probably say that an .800 OPS and 25 HR would be a baseline for what you would expect from a viable 1B on a good team and LaPorta could probably pull that off, assuming health and consistent usage in 2011.

But, let’s say he posts around an .800 OPS with 25 HR in 2011 – is that a “successful” year for Matt LaPorta as a 26-year-old?

The MLB average for 1B in 2011 was…wait for it…exactly an .800 OPS and 25 HR. Shouldn’t there be higher expectations for LaPorta than to be merely an “average” 1B or are we just hoping that he’ll simply be “average” in light of last year?

I think it speaks to a greater question regarding the 2011 team and specifically the young players in terms of expectations. There are a certain number of young players out of whom you would like to see some level of improvement, with Brantley, Donald, Talbot, some bullpen arms and maybe Tomlin and Gomez coming to mind. Those guys should be able to take some steps forward because they have some more MLB time under their belt and nobody expects them to break out in the here and now, particularly given their age, either young (Brantley and Gomez) in that they are still developing or “old” (Donald and Talbot) in that “they are what they are”.

However, that “break-out” is what the Indians need in 2011 from a number of their young players, and particularly the ones that were acquired as impact players – LaPorta, Carrasco, and Masterson most obviously – if the Indians are going to contend any time soon.

Multiple comparisons have been made about this “Rebuild/Reload/Whatever” to the one that occurred in the mid-2000s and if we’re going to use that as a blueprint for expectations going forward, what happened in 2004 and 2005, when players like Vic and Hafner and Peralta and CC all made adjustments and established themselves as good-to-elite players while they developed is what needs to continue to happen in 2011. If 2010 saw the emergence of Choo and Santana and Perez and a return by Carmona, the Indians need other players to step forward as difference-makers on this club.

JON - Right on.  And when I say “make-or-break year” I should be clear: a modest improvement will, at least for me, constitute “making it”.  It’s not like he has anyone breathing down his neck in Columbus for the spot.  On the other hand, the status quo or regression would definitely be “breaking it.”  If he doesn’t improve, the one event he will be planning is an entry to the work force.

And let’s be clear about another thing.  Throughout Matt LaPorta’s 162 game major league career, he has not been merely “below average” or “sub-par” or whatever other platitude we might want to use.  By both Fangraphs‘ and Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement metrics, Matt LaPorta has performed worse than your run-of-the-mill AAA first baseman would have.  Or, to put it another way, his mere existence in the lineup has cost the Indians wins.  That is…well…that is really, really bad.

So that bit about the average AL first baseman is quite interesting.  And tempting.  If Fat Matt can put up 25 HR and an .800 OPS, I’d be beyond pleased.  Not because it’s amazing production–as you say, it’s exactly average for an AL first baseman.  No, I’d be happy because it would represent real improvement AND our offense can get significantly above average contributions from our catcher and two outfield spots: Choo, Santana and Grady can wallpaper over an average first baseman.  They can’t cover up a first baseman who hits like something called a “Pete O’Brien”.

As to whether average production is “enough” considering that he was the key piece in the Sabathia-deal, well, um…  I guess I’m willing to let bygones be bygones.  Prospect evaluation isn’t a perfect science, and I’m not one to hold the organization to the lofty standards that were established by the Colon deal.  Maybe one of the other names in that deal (all much younger than LaPorta, by the way) makes that deal look better in a few years.  But if LaPorta can be an average first baseman playing consistently (and for the league minimum!), I think we need to cut our losses and call it a win.

I know I would.

  • MattyFos

    Matola, funny.

  • Max

    i think this goes back a bit to the overall organizational philosophy of going after draftees and prospects who are already at or near their ceilings (i.e preferring to go with consistent and moderately successful college seniors rather than a potentially volatile high schholer with sky high potential) or even, preferring to target players who are not a risk to make wild contract demands. I can recall a couple of instances where this front office has eschewed almost certain front line talent in lieu of a player who seems more club friendly. Im not mentioning the big one we all know about but I guess by not mentioning him, I kinda did mention him, so I have foiled my own plan, but I digress.

    Anyhow, now we’re stuck becaise we can’t fire the GM because the Ex-GM was savvy enough to give himself a promotion while putting his crony in place who shares the exact same line of thinking ((in fairness, Chirs antonetti seems like a capable, intelligent, nice guy, but that doesn’t win baseball games). Since he’s new, we cant jettison him, instead we have to give him time to see what he can do, (even though he represents the failed train of logic of the previous GM)…sounds like a lot of fancy dancing to distract people from their ineptitude in the talent evaluation/player acquisition departments…which is kinda what their job is and all, yet they cry “small market” and hit the average joe with sob stories and General Manger level “Wedgespeak” while they keep getting paid and avoid any real accountability for their failures.

    Its not the “small market” that keeps this team from being able to contend. Its not cheap owners (although Scrooge McSteinbrenners vault would be handy). Its a failure to properly evaluate and obtain young talent by the front office.

    Generally, the rule seems to be that if a guy is still in college his senior year, then he might not have the stuff to be a high impact professional (maybe I got the worng impression from the stuff ive read over the years, but thats what I ascertained). Also, college seniors dopnt have many other choices, since they are out of NCAA eligibility and all, therefore, they are more likely to sign a deal that is on the team’s terms. Which is nice and all, but easier contract negotiations with players who are most likely at or near their ceilings dont win friggin baseball games.

    Or, at least they could try and overslot some guys in the higher rounds and take a couple shots on more insanely talented guys who may either be raw, or have loftier contract demads, and then revert to their cautious ways for the other 46 rounds of the draft?

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Scott

    Man, Jon – you better hope that Brantley character pans out…

  • Tommy

    @Max

    Update your records man. You are bashing on the Indians FO for stuff that happened over 3-4 years ago. Since then, the drafts seem to have gone much better under a new head of amateur scouting. And this past year there is no doubt that we made a conscience decision to take some big chances on top talent players. And we proved the willingness to pay overslot to get that talent in the organization. Look at Pomeranz, Washington, Wolters, Holt among others for examples. No one industry though we would be able to sign all those guys, but we did. In general, the draft also consisted of many more high school players that you speak so highly of than in years past.

    Stop railing on the FO because you think we should’ve given over a million to a 47 round draft pick when we took Lincecum. Give me a break man. You lose all credibility when you whine about that.

  • mgbode

    I can just hear a young William Shattner yelling it out while shaking his fist:

    LAPORTA!!!!!!

    then again, I hear the Mariners are in the market for a 1B and seem to like our table scraps.

  • BisonDeleSightings

    At this point, it seems generous to compare LaPorta to Pete O’Brien. And writing that made me depressed.

  • Phoenix48

    Good Read. I agree w/Jon that an ’11 season out of Matola at average would be a welcome relief – and for the reasons he points out as far as the ability to paper over – great imagery by the way Jon.

    I hate to make this observation – as much for how it dates just how long I’ve been ‘waiting for next year’ – but it hit me last year when watching Fat Matt struggle through an interview – given when he was going through his mini-power surge – having hit several dingers in a five game span or so.

    The first baseman that he reminded me of wasn’t Garko or even Paulie Sorento – it was – gulp – TONY HORTON. The Laporta body language screams get thee to a sports psychologist.

    Maybe his hip injury was a stress fracture that resulted from the weight of being the #1 hot prospect in the CC deal. Because thus far the guy hasn’t dealt with it.

    At least when Brantley struggles he manages to exude the confidence the will soon break out of it – and – plays plus D.

    Lets face it – if we weren’t dwelling in small market purgatory with KC – Matola never would have his chance at proving he isn’t Andy Marte with a bigger AAA pedigree.

    I hope I am wrong and he emerges as Thome-lite and fully well adjusted. But right now I expect to write an obit come next Sept.