In case you haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening in Columbus, one fairly well known Indians player is having an incredible start to the season in Triple-A: Matt LaPorta.
Banished to the minors in March after failing to find his groove in parts of three seasons with the parent club, LaPorta is terrorizing Triple-A pitchers. After 21 games, he’s hitting .380 with 8 home runs, 14 extra-base hits, 17 runs scored, and 17 RBI. He’s slugging a ridiculous .759, and his OPS is a Ruthian 1.210. He’s finally looking like the elite hitter the Indians thought they were getting when they acquired him in the 2008 CC Sabathia deal.
The question is: Does LaPorta’s hot start suggest that he has really turned the corner? Or does it not matter at all?
It is important to first note that LaPorta’s numbers would immediately plummet if he were promoted tomorrow just because of the superior competition. Minor-league pitchers are in the minor leagues for a reason, and even if we forget the smallness of the sample size and assume that LaPorta’s numbers to date represent his true talent level he’d be in for a regression as soon as he arrived in Cleveland.
Still, LaPorta’s numbers would be impressive. According to Jeff Sackmann’s Minor League Equivalency Calculator, his line in Columbus would translate to a .339/.403/.648 triple-slash in Cleveland. He’d be on pace for 46 homers and 92 RBI over a full season in the majors, and even pegging him as a significantly below-average fielder and baserunner the Simple WAR Calculator pegs him for 5.2 wins above replacement—for some perspective, that would have made him the Tribe’s best player in 2011.
Where is the improvement coming from? His .423 BABIP suggests that he’s benefited from quite a few lucky bounces (random chance or not, a hit rate like that is completely unsustainable at any level), but it runs deeper than that. His walk rate is up, and so is his power—he’s averaging more than a home run every 10 at-bats with a .380 ISO and a 1.000 Power Factor.
But is this really new? Sure, these are probably the best numbers he’s posted at any level. But he laid comparable waste to opposing pitchers in similar sample sizes in High-A in 2008 and at Triple-A in 2010, not to mention the terrific hitting displays he put on in larger sample sizes Double-A before his 2008 trade and in Triple-A in 2009. There’s a reason he was once considered a top prospect, and no one has ever doubted his ability to hit minor-league pitching.
The problem is, LaPorta has never been able to parlay his minor-league might into any kind of sustained success in The Show. And after three years of struggling in the majors, it may be time to start removing the adhesive backing from the dreaded “Quad-A” label.
A common idea among sabermetric analysts is that the “Quad-A” player—i.e., a hitter who mashes in the minors but looks hopeless in the big leagues—is a myth. But FanGraphs’ Bradley Woodrum argues that, since younger pitchers’ secondary offerings are generally less developed than their fastballs, hitters who struggle against breaking balls can get by in Triple-A but are exposed when they face MLB pitching.
That description fits LaPorta like a glove. FanGraphs’ pitch values confirm what observant Indians fans already know: breaking balls are LaPorta’s Achilles heel. So while it’s too soon to declare him a Quad-A player—his MLB career consists of less than two full seasons’ worth of plate appearances—it’s fair to say he was on watch heading into 2012.
In assessing how LaPorta fits as a Quad-A player before the season, Woodrum expressed doubt that sending him back to the minors would do any good. “Will going to Triple-A work in LaPorta’s favor?” he asked before channeling Nostradamus:
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. (…)
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.
Nearly three months later, Woodrum’s warning now seems to ring eerily true. After three years of looking like the archetypal Quad-A player it isn’t enough to look at his minor league equivalencies when assessing his MLB readiness. That he is absolutely feasting on pitchers with inferior off-speed stuff now could be the ultimate proof that he isn’t cut out for a regular job in the majors.
This isn’t to say LaPorta’s hot start should be seen in a bad light. We won’t know for sure whether or not whether the strides he’s made in Columbus will beget better results in the majors until the Indians call him up again, and even then it’s not certain he’d get enough playing time for us to make a definitive judgment. But his insane numbers don’t necessarily mean that he’s turned the corner—they could just as easily suggest that his career is stuck in neutral.