To say that Matt LaPorta disappointed in his first 623 professional plate appearances would be to grossly understate the expectations for him. He was, after all, a two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year with Florida, and then went seventh overall in the draft to a team that already had a budding superstar at the position. Baseball America described his power as game-changing and noted that he “can drive the ball out of the park to all fields when he gets his arms extended.” It’s understandable, then, why he was the centerpiece of the CC Sabathia deal, and why he figured to be Cleveland’s first baseman of the future.
While he has shown significant improvement this season, he still hasn’t put everything together. At age 26, it’s looking less and less likely that he will. It doesn’t preclude him from becoming a useful player, but his window to superstardom is open only a crack, if at all.
In April it was hard to not get excited about LaPorta. He might have hit only .247, but he belted four homers and four doubles, good for a .234 ISO. There’s that well above-average power that Baseball America had praised; that ISO ranked 33rd among 194 qualified hitters in April. He also drew a walk in 11.2% of his plate appearances, a rate that approximated his rate in the upper minors and exceeded his rate during his first two big-league stints. If a few more singles dropped in, he could be well on his way to fulfilling at least some of his potential, albeit a bit later than expected.
In May things changed a bit. There’s a note on his Rotoworld page that his OPS had fallen from .857 at the end of April to .778 through May 15. That made me wonder what happened, but as with most statistical issues at that point (and still at this point), it had to do with end points and fickle samples more than performance. LaPorta actually had a.818 OPS at the end of April, but boosted it to .857 with a 2 for 3, 2 2B performance on May 1. Really, LaPorta’s May has been no worse than his April in the aggregate. He’s struggled in some ways, but has excelled in others.
LaPorta’s power is certainly down this month, as he has yet to hit a home run. His .167 ISO for the month is much closer to average than well above average. He has also walked a bit less, at just 7.3%. But he’s hitting .333, including six doubles, thanks to a .429 BABIP. That has his wOBA for the month at .387, after .361 in April. It’s a shame that the hits are falling when the power has dropped off, but LaPorta has managed to remain productive despite the discrepancy. His current season wOBA, .369, ranks 41st out of 192 qualified hitters, and 13th among first baseman. It’s not the stuff of superstars, but it certainly puts him on pace for a season that, given his previous struggles, was tough to envision.
There is one interesting twist here that you can interpret as either damning him or setting up hope for the future: his home/road splits. At home he’s doing everything better, hitting .298/.379/.596, including three of his four homers. That’s good for a .421 wOBA. On the road he’s at .250/.328/.375, a .316 wOBA. This stands in contrast to his 2009 and 2010 seasons, in which he hit .206/.287/.386 (.297 wOBA) at home and .255/.325/.390 (.318 wOBA) on the road. That’s based on about a season’s worth of data, and there’s not much of a discrepancy. That is, could it be that he’s just on an incredible tear at home this year, one that will cool down as the season wears on? After all, he has only 66 PA at home, and we know how quickly players can turn around after that point.
Last Friday Eric Seidman studied underproducing prospects and how they performed in their mid- to late-20s. While LaPorta doesn’t fall into Eric’s precise sample — he debuted at age 24 — everything else about him seems to fit. He produced -0.1 WAR through his first two big-league forays, and so he looks a lot like the players Eric described. While some of those underperformers did turn it around, on average they did not. There’s certainly a chance that LaPorta, finally settled into a regular role at his regular position, has figured things out at age 26. But considering his performance this season, and especially his torrid performance at home, we can temper expectations for the time being. He doesn’t look much at all like the guy whose power was so greatly hyped early in his career.
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