Numbers Show No Options or Improvement For LaPorta

After a disappointing 2012 Cleveland Indians season the organization is at a crossroads to decide how to progress with the organization, not just for the 2013 season but several seasons to come. Decisions involve ownerships, the front office, managerial and coaching decisions and the players. For the month of October, we’ll look at how the Indians ended up in their current predicament, but most importantly, Where Do the Indians Go From Here. Today we analyze a player out of minor league options in 2013. 

Matt LaPorta has been a swing and a miss, literally, figuratively and now statistically.

LaPorta was once a top prospect and thought to be a slugger of the future. After four disappointing stints at the major league level, his time in Cleveland has been tainted, and his future is uncertain.

Out of options for 2013, LaPorta either will need to be retained on the major league roster, traded or given his outright release. In order to return to the minor leagues, LaPorta will have to clear waivers each time, and despite his struggles, some team will claim him. In 2012 for the Indians, LaPorta played 22 games, moving back and forth from the big league club to Triple-A Columbus. He batted .241, hit one home run and slugged an embarrassing .328. Things were not always this bleak for the once hot prospect.

In 2007, the Milwaukee Brewers selected Matt LaPorta in the first round of the June Amateur Draft. He made an immediate impact, crushing the competition at Short Season A, batting .304 and slugging .698 in 30 games before moving up to Single-A. At that level, he smashed 10 home runs in 23 games and batted .318. He began the 2008 season in Double-A, and 84 games in he was batting .288 with 20 home runs. He was shipped of to Cleveland in July for another former first round pick, CC Sabathia. In 2009 at Triple-A, LaPorta hammered out 17 home runs and batted .299. It looked like the sky was the limit for the young star.

LaPorta struggled to make an impact in the major leagues during the next four years. In 291 career games, he batted .238 and slugged a lowly .393. The power he showed throughout his minor league career never developed, and his flaws were exposed quickly.

Nearly all of the issues that have hindered LaPorta’s progress are related to his plate discipline and pitch selection. When looking at how often a player swung at a pitch outside the strike zone, the league average was 30.8 percent in 2012. LaPorta swung at 46.2 percent of pitches he saw that were not strikes. Not only is that more than 150 percent above league average, but nearly half of the pitches thrown to LaPorta outside the strike zone, he attempted to hit. That is epically bad plate discipline.

What makes all those swings so bad is that he misses so incredibly often. In fact, he misses at historically bad levels. Statisticians use a tool called a Gaussian Function, also known as a bell curve because of its recognizable bell shape, which measures the distribution of a variable. The highest point on the curve represents the most probable event, and the events become less probable as they move toward the outskirts of the curve.

When plotting out this curve, roughly 66 percent of all players fall within one standard deviation of the mean, 98 percent of all players fall within two standard deviations and 99.8 percent fall within three standard deviations. We can apply this function to any baseball statistic to determine where players rank relative to one another in a given category.

This is one way we can see how LaPorta stacks up to his peers. Let’s measure his swinging strike percentage, written as swstr percent. This measure how many pitches a player swung and missed at per total number of pitches seen.

The league average swstr percent is 9.1 percent. The standard deviation for this stat is 1.5 percent. When plotting this on a Bell Curve, 66 percent of all players will be within 1.5 percent of the league average, or between 7.6 and 10.6 percent, while 98 percent of players will fall within 3 percent, or 6.1 to 12.1 swstr percent.

Adam Dunn is notorious for striking out; he has struck out more than 2,000 times in his career, an average 191 strikeouts per 162 games. His swstr percent in 2012 was 12.1 percent, exactly two standard deviations away from league average. Mark Reynolds is the strikeout king. His 223 strikeouts in 2009 is the single season record, and he has struck out 200 or more times in three of his six seasons. His swstr percent is 13.5 percent, almost three standard deviations away from average.

LaPorta has a swstr percent of 20.3 percent.

That is nearly seven standard deviations away. He whiffed on one out of every five pitches he saw in 2012. No player in baseball history that reached a minimum of 100 plate appearances in a season has ever whiffed at that high of a percentage.

LaPorta simply is not worth any more time or money from the Cleveland Indians. A trade is not an option, because LaPorta has very little value on the market. Last week, LaPorta had hip surgery and will be need three to four months of rehabilitation before fully returning to baseball activities. While he is expected to be healthy and ready to perform by the beginning of the exhibition season in March, LaPorta will spend his winter rehabilitating, not improving his plate awareness.

Worse yet, moving forward the Indians have a huge hole at first base. The team is not expected to resign free agent first baseman Casey Kotchman. Depending upon other moves made this winter, the Indians could head to Goodyear, Ariz., with only two possibilities for LaPorta: give him his outright release at the end of spring training if he cannot perform at the major league level, or give him one last chance to prove he can play first base while the Tribe continues to develop prospect Jesus Aguilar to replace him.

Regardless of the decision in March, either option seems to be a historical swing and miss for the player who was the centerpiece of the Sabathia trade four and a half seasons ago.

Photo: Getty Images

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