Not a Rookie: Matt LaPorta
Cleveland Indians first baseman/outfielder Matt LaPorta was supposed to be one of the best young power hitters in baseball by now, but it hasn't happened left. Let's take a look at his development as a prospect and his major league career so far.
Matt LaPorta was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round of the 2007 draft, from the University of Florida. The senior had hit .402/.582/.817 with 20 homers, 55 walks, and just 16 strikeouts in 169 college at-bats that spring, but most teams saw him as a late first round talent due to defensive limitations and his senior status, and Milwaukee's decision to draft him so high was controversial in scouting circles. Most were impressed with his bat, but also felt that he would be limited to first base. The Brewers disagreed with the consensus and felt he was mobile enough to handle left field. He had few problems adapting in his first look at pro pitching, hitting .318/.392/.750 with 10 homers in just 23 games for Low-A West Virginia. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2008 book, ranked at 19th overall on the hitting prospect list, projecting him as a possible 30-homer hitter in the majors, though uncertain what his batting average and OBP were going to look like.
The Brewers jumped LaPorta up to Double-A Huntsville to begin 2008; he hit .288/.402/.576 with 20 homers, 45 walks, and 63 strikeouts in 302 at-bats, showing few adaptation problems. At mid-summer he was traded to the Indians in the C.C. Sabathia deal. Things did not go as well after the trade: he hit just .233/.299/.350, with four walks and 12 strikeouts in 60 at-bats. Although the sample was small, scouts felt he was pressing after the trade and was overaggressive against breaking pitches outside the zone. Still, it was just 17 games. His outfield defense proved to be mediocre, but that was better than people expected and would be OK if he hit enough. I retained a Grade B+ rating for him, ranked at 29th overall on the hitting list.
LaPorta split 2009 between Triple-A Columbus (.299/.388/.530 in 93 games, 17 homers, 42/56 BB/K in 338 at-bats) and Cleveland (.254/.308/.442, 12/37 BB/K in 181 at-bats, seven homers). His major league performance wasn't spectacular, his .750 OPS coming out exactly league average. This year, he's at .255/.326/.391. Although his .717 OPS represents a drop of 33 raw production points, his OPS+ is actually just a hair below league at 98. He's hitting almost the same as last year, and given the sample sizes he really hasn't changed much. If you take his current major league performance over 342 at-bats and 99 games, and project it out to 162 games, you get a line of .254/.316/.418, with 33 doubles, 20 homers, 47 walks, and 119 strikeouts in 560 at-bats, with an OPS+ of 99.
That's obviously not as good as expected, but it isn't exactly horrendous; he's shown 20-homer power and hit some doubles, but the BB/K ratio isn't nearly as good as it has been in the minors. LaPorta has a career Triple-A line of .310/.400/.548 in 407 at-bats, with a 54/66 BB/K. He just hasn't been able to bring that plate discipline forward to the majors yet. Fangraphs reveals that he's hit fastballs OK, but has shown weakness against everything else, the worst a -4 pitch value against sliders. This accords with the observations of scouts that breaking stuff is his biggest problem.
So, what should the Indians do with him? He clearly has nothing left to prove in Triple-A, and at this point the best option is to just let him play and see if he can work his problems out. He's only 25, still two or three years left away from his career prime. Drawing conclusions for a player his age based on 342 at-bats spread out over two seasons isn't wise. The Indians aren't going to win this year anyway, so I'd give him as many at-bats as I could to see what happens. With Russ Branyan shipped off to Seattle, this seems like their plan. The outfield experiment is over and LaPorta is back at first base now.
Ultimately, I think LaPorta can still be a productive major league slugger. He's never going to hit .300, but I can still see him knocking 30 homers some season in his late 20s, probably after everyone gives up on him.