Every Indians fan knows that Matt LaPorta has been a monumental disappointment.
When he was acquired as the centerpiece of the 2008 CC Sabathia deal, we heard whisperings of alleged 40-homer potential and the general expectation was that he would anchor the Tribe’s lineup for years to come. Even once the sheen started to come off a couple years ago, it seemed reasonable to assume that he would at least be a valuable contributor to the Cleveland lineup for the foreseeable future.
That hasn’t happened. LaPorta will enter his age 27 season with a career OPS just barely topping .700 in three partial seasons with the parent club—not so great for a guy who plays a premium offensive position and hasn’t shown many positive signs on defense either. After two straight years of producing below replacement level, he’s all but lost his starting job.
The consensus cure for what ails LaPorta seems to be another trip down to Triple-A Columbus. But FanGraphs’ Bradley Woodrum isn’t so sure that will help. In fact, according to Woodrum’s (fairly convincing) argument, it will be bad news for the Tribe if LaPorta succeeds with the Clippers.
LaPorta, Woodrum argues, has developed into—cue dramatic music—a Quad-A player. A theoretical Quad-A man is a hitter who destroys opposing pitchers in the upper minors but can’t hit a lick in The Show. It’s one of the most damning labels in the game, and it’s one that’s exceedingly hard for a player to shake.
Intrinsically, it seems odd to think that a batter can go from dominant to useless when facing the next level of competition. The change in the quality of pitching should be more or less the same for every player who gets the call from Triple-A, and while every batter adjusts differently you’d generally expect the proportional declines in hitters’ productions to be pretty similar. And often times the Quad-A label is applied prematurely in response to a small sample of exposure to big-league pitching.
But as Woodrum (and others have) noted, there are some rational explanations for why certain players have trouble adjusting to the majors. It’s not just that the pitchers are better in the big leagues, it’s that they’re better at certain aspects of pitching. Generally speaking, the difference between the average MLB and Triple-A fastball is smaller than it would be for a change-up or a curveball. A hitter handles hurlers’ secondary and tertiary pitches can’t always be judged accurately while he’s in the minors, but such a weakness would be exposed pretty quickly in the majors.
Since that doesn’t have any effect on defense or speed, the archetypal Quad-A player would be a one-dimensional all-offense player who mashes fastballs but can’t handle off-speed stuff. The first part definitely sounds like LaPorta, and Woodrum shows that the whole shoe fits:
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).
This, as Woodrum notes, leads to anoter problem: If he really is a Quad-A player with an Achilles heel made of breaking balls, giving him more time at Triple-A won’t be of any help. The only way for LaPorta to get the experience he needs against top-quality off-speed pitches is to let him see regular time with the parent club—a luxury the Indians can’t afford if they want to contend in the AL Central. And, as Woodrum notes, if LaPorta really is a Quad-A player, a successful cup of coffee against inferior pitching would ”only solidify that perception.”
Maybe this is just cognitive dissonance speaking, but I’d suggest a bit of caution before following these facts to their logical conclusion. The slightly less than two years’ worth of playing time LaPorta’s had in the majors are definitely enough to say that there is a problem, but not enough to say with certainty that he can’t fix it. At age 27 he should be in his prime and he isn’t too old to learn a new trick. He’ll never be a star and even his becoming a worthy MLB starter is probably unrealistic, but developing into an above-average hitter definitely isn’t out of the question.
Nor are all Quad-A players useless. Even if LaPorta really is a Quad-A guy, there’s a much more notorious example already on the Indians’ roster: Shelley Duncan, who earned the label before he came to Cleveland after terrorizing Triple-A but failing to find any success in the majors. Yet he’s become an incredibly useful piece for the Indians: last year, at age 31, he OPSed .808 while filling in wherever he was needed in the lineup.
I’m not ready to remove the metaphorical adhesive backing from the Quad-A label just yet, and even if the shoe fits it doesn’t mean he’s doomed to a career as a worthless player. But there’s a compelling case to be made that LaPorta just doesn’t have what it takes to handle MLB pitching, and if breaking balls are the problem sending him down to the minors probably isn’t going to fix it.