I have never cared much for the distinction of “Quad-A” — the thought that some players can be so precipitously worse just one rung higher in the organization seems somehow absurd or narrow-focused to me. But nonetheless, we have players such as Matt LaPorta who seem to fit the cliched mold all too well.
LaPorta — unlike most players designated Quad-A — was at one time a highly touted prospect and a first round draft pick. Though, as my colleague Dan Wade noted, LaPorta’s status has not led to success — rather, it has led to a likely exercising of his minor league option in 2012.
The Cleveland Indians are somewhat flush with major-league ready first baseman — though not necessarily All-Star first basemen (the glove-first Casey Kotchman; the positionless Russ Canzler; the not-quite-a-catcher Carlos Santana). Meanwhile, LaPorta has assembled nearly the same number of plate appearances in the majors (1008) as in the minors (1046), but has played nothing like his minor league self.
At this point, the question is not whether the Indians will send LaPorta to Triple-A — but rather will it do him any good?
So here is a look at his minor league and major league stats:
Obviously, LaPorta has gotten worse in his four major components (walk rate, strikeout rate, homer rate, and BABIP) since reaching the majors, but that is pretty common. The magnitude of change is what has put LaPorta into Trouble’s cauldron.
One of the starkest differences has been in his homer rate. He went from averaging 5.4 homers every 100 PAs to (or about 32 homers per 600 PAs) to 3 homers per 100 PAs (or 18 homers per full year). His walk rate is nothing special, but in 2010, the year he received the the closest semblance of regular playing in the MLB career, he actually walked at a decent clip (10.8%). His strikeout rate is worrisome — especially its upward trend — but still, he could be successful if his other pieces were in place.
In Wade’s article, he suggested maybe LaPorta’s lowish BABIP was playing a role in his struggles — as he owns a .273 MLB BABIP and a .310 minor league BABIP. There is a rich multitude of reasons why a player’s BABIP from the minors would not carry over to the majors, but let us say his true talent BABIP was actually .310 — where would that put his hitting?
If we adjust the BABIP to .310, his career ShH goes from 85 to 103 — or from shortstop to Casey Kotchman (except sans Kotchman’s glove). Maybe his BABIP is unluckily low? Such bad fortunes exist in the realm of possibility, but over the course of 1000 PAs, we must begin to suspect his profile and approach are merely predisposed to a .270 BABIP.
Indeed, the biggest difference between minor-league-rising-star LaPorta and soon-to-be-demoted LaPorta is his home run rate. If his 5.4% home run rate had translated to the majors (which seems unlikely to begin with) and all his other peripherals (BABIP, BB%, and K%) were just as bad as they are now, he would go from his 85 career ShH to a 113 ShH — that is nearly a 30-point jump. It seems unlikely he could have done that, but still, I doubt the Indians would have wanted him as much if they did not suspect he would become a first baseman who could hit around 30 homers in a season.
So what is not working with LaPorta? The classical Quad-A player definition typically dictates that the Quad-A player will struggle with breaking pitches, as they face a lot of bad breaking pitches in the minors, and then feast on fastballs. His Pitch F/x Pitch Values help us see some of his strengths and weaknesses in that regard. In his career, he has hit four-seamers (FA) and two-seamers (FT) admirably — comparably, in fact, to Michael Cuddyer. He does not terrify fastball pitchers per se — his four-seamer hitting over the last two years was 6th worst among the 31 first basemen with at least 800 PAs — but he hits fastballs well enough to survive.
When it comes to hitting curves, however, LaPorta is sunk. His career rate of -1.51 wCU/C (according to Pitch F/x) puts him in dangerous Quad-A territory. The only other two first basemen to struggle more with curves over the last two years? Justin Smoak (-2.06) and Adam Lind (-1.49, just .01 worse than LaPorta’s -1.48).
Granted: Paul Konerko and Mark Teixeira also have struggled with curves since 2010, but these guys slaughter fastballs with heartless efficiency — and Teixeira is one of the league’s best slider-mashers.
Will going to Triple-A work in LaPorta’s favor? It is hard to say yes. At this point in his career, he looks like a pure Quad-A player, so going back to the minors may only solidify that perception, oddly enough, if he starts hitting well. LaPorta has been improving on sliders over the last three seasons, but one must imagine that if breaking pitches really do trouble him, then the only path to improvement is through steady MLB playing time — something the Indians may just not be in a position to give him.
So I wish LaPorta good luck, because unless he learns something that he didn’t learn before while in the same classroom, then this may be the last time we see him as a starter or even a major leaguer.
Good luck, Matt, I’m rooting for you!