LaPorta’s Last Stand
By Bob Toth
The recall of Matt LaPorta to Cleveland on Friday lacked the jubilation and hope that the former top prospect and key acquisition of the 2008 C.C. Sabathia trade had once generated with the Indians and their fans.
The 27-year-old LaPorta began his latest audition for the Indians on Friday night, batting sixth and playing first base in a 3-1 loss to the New York Yankees. A pair of strikeouts, including a key whiff with runners on second and third with nobody out in the bottom of the ninth, overshadowed his lone single to center in the fifth. The performance improved his season batting average with Cleveland to .200, with three singles and four strikeouts in 15 plate appearances.
The Yankees clearly used the same scouting report on LaPorta as teams have used for years – throw lots and lots of off-speed breaking pitches.
The breaking ball has always seemed to be the Achilles’ heel for LaPorta, and despite four different years with at bats at the Major League level, he still has not found a way to hit it.
Statistics seem to indicate that he is pressing through four games with the Indians this year, although it is tough to make any assumptions based on such a small sample size. He is averaging 3.07 pitches per at bat, down from his career average of 3.84. He has swung at 53% of the first pitches in his at bats. He has swung and missed at just under one-third of all strikes thrown to him, more than double the Major League average.
After comments by manager Manny Acta and general manager Chris Antonetti, it sounds as though LaPorta now has one final opportunity to showcase himself to this regime and prove that he belongs in the Major Leagues. The team plans to use him in extended action at first base and designated hitter over the last six weeks of the season, and that his performance will determine his at bats and playing time.
His future after this season with the organization is at stake, as he is out of options next year.
LaPorta has spent the majority of his sixth professional season in Columbus playing for the Indians’ AAA affiliate, after failing to break camp with the club out of spring training.
This is the second tour for LaPorta this season at the Major League level. He made an appearance in June when he was recalled during Johnny Damon’s trip to the paternity list. At the time of his recall, he was hitting .307 with 14 home runs and was on his way to an International League Mid-Season All-Star game appearance.
LaPorta’s numbers have plummeted since that All-Star game. Before it, he had 75 hits in 67 games. Post All-Star game, he had just 24 hits in 34 games. His .188 batting average in the second half has driven his .304 batting average at the break down 40 points to .264.
His power has disappeared as well. Of his 75 first-half hits, 32 were for extra bases, or a total of 42.7% of his total hits. His 24 post All-Star game hits were composed of just seven extra base hits, an average of 29.2% of his total in that span.
The long ball disappeared as well, something that LaPorta was supposed to bring to the club when he was acquired. LaPorta hit 14 of his 19 home runs in the season’s first two months. Prior to the All-Star game, he was averaging a home run every 14.5 at bats. In the 34 games since, he has averaged just one home run every 64 at bats!
There has been a legion of fans clamoring for LaPorta to get playing time with the Indians throughout the season, especially after his productive start for the Clippers. Those who had anointed him as the would-be savior of the lost 2012 campaign argued that he had not been given a chance and that he could not have done any worse than the combination of first basemen and left fielders that the team ran out throughout the year.
While the latter is debatable, and probably true, he had more than his fair share of chances over the previous two and one-half years of opportunities that the team afforded him from 2009 to 2011 to claim a regular position on the roster.
He came to the Indians from the Milwaukee Brewers organization on July 7th, 2008, the centerpiece of the Sabathia trade and a highly-touted right-handed hitting outfielder with power. He had showcased his clout throughout his successful collegiate career with the Gators of the University of Florida and was rewarded by being selected seventh overall in the first round by Milwaukee in the 2007 amateur draft.
He hit 12 home runs in 30 games in the Brewers’ minor league system in 2007 and another 22 in 2008, split between the Brewers’ and Indians’ AA teams.
He made his big league debut on May 3rd, 2009 and struck out in his first at bat against Justin Verlander. He hit a home run in his second game against Toronto for his first Major League hit. He struggled throughout the month and was demoted in order to get regular playing time on May 26th, after batting .190 with one home run and four runs batted in. The Indians were 18-28 at the time, 8.5 games out and in last place in the American League Central Division.
He was recalled on August 19, 2009, after hitting .299 with a .388 on-base percentage in Columbus with 17 home runs and 60 RBI. He batted .273 over the rest of the season for the Indians, with six home runs and 17 RBI in 39 games while primarily playing left field.
The 2010 season looked to be a potential breakout season for the young LaPorta, as he was expected to be the team’s starting first baseman. Instead, Cleveland signed former Indian Russell Branyan to play first. LaPorta entered into a competition with Michael Brantley for the left field spot, only to be moved back to first base before the end of spring training due to a disabled list trip for Branyan. When Branyan returned, LaPorta’s playing time decreased, and he was ultimately optioned to Columbus due to a lack of at bats available at the Major League level for him. He had contributed just one home run and seven runs batted in and a .218 batting average in limited opportunities for the struggling 11-24 Indians team.
LaPorta played regularly after his late-June recall. He finished out the season as the team’s every day first baseman and showed some of his power potential, hitting eleven home runs in 75 games. His slugging percentage was over 120 points higher when playing every day versus his erratic pre-demotion opportunities.
The first base job was handed to LaPorta for the 2011 season. He started out consistent with regular playing time. Through 37 games, his batting average climbed all the way up to .275 in the middle of May. At the time, he was showing an ability to get on base and drive in runs. His on-base percentage was at .360 and he was slugging at a .500 clip. Forty-eight percent of his hits were for extra bases, including five home runs. He was on pace to hit around 20 homers while driving in close to 100 runs.
Starting with his 200th career game on May 20th, LaPorta’s power disappeared, as did his eye at the plate.
Over the next 70 games (62 starts), he batted .233, dropping his season average to .247. He added just six more home runs and 31 RBI, falling well short of the pace he had established through the first month and a half of the season. One out of every four plate appearances resulted in a strikeout. His on-base percentage was just 31 points higher than his batting average, thanks to just eight walks in that span. He batted just .207 against lefties with one home run in 87 at bats on the year.
He missed 16 games due to a sprained ankle in June and was briefly demoted at the end of August when the team was in need of a roster spot for a pitcher and moved him to Columbus due to his inconsistencies and the team’s depth at the time at first base.
LaPorta has not been able to capitalize on his opportunities with the Indians. Even worse, his perceived regression at the plate throughout the 2011 season in the power and patience departments hurt his overall value. The problem was glaring, especially to a team desperate for right-handed power at either the first base or left field positions.
It could be possible that LaPorta is your prototypical AAAA player – a guy who can mash the long ball against minor league pitching, but struggles to maintain the consistency offensively to be a regular Major League ball player if and when given the chance. He averaged a home run every 19.5 minor league plate appearances and one every 21.8 appearances in AAA, but just one every 34.1 Major League appearances.
The Indians have had quite a few players like LaPorta in their past – minor league power hitting first baseman/outfielders who do not seem to pan out in the Majors. There have been plenty before him and there will be plenty after him just the same. In fact, there may very well be one on the active roster now.
LaPorta’s numbers mirror those of Shelley Duncan. Duncan was a second round draft pick who showed plenty of power in the Yankees’ minor league system, hitting more than 30 homers for them twice and more than 20 home runs four different times while amassing a .258 career minor league average. Over the last three seasons for the Indians, while playing the outfield, first base, and some DH, Duncan has hit .235 with eleven home runs in each season. He has averaged 38 RBI in those years.
If LaPorta does not want to become like the aforementioned, a platoon bench player barely hanging onto a Major League job, now is his chance to seize the opportunity.
If he did not take advantage of the regular playing time in Columbus to learn how to lay off of the unhittable off-speed pitches out of the strike zone, he may not be long for the highest level of professional baseball.
He has shown an ability to smack fastballs a long way, just like plenty of mediocre players who have floated back and forth between AAA and the Major Leagues, too good for the minors, but not good enough for the Majors.
He needs to do now what has plagued him in 273 career games with the Indians – prove that he belongs – or this could indeed be LaPorta’s last stand.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images