Well, it finally happened, Matt LaPorta’s continued felonious assault on International League pitching (and the magic of childbirth) have forced the Cleveland Indians to recall the onetime prospect from Columbus to fill the shoes of the again-new father Johnny Damon.
LaPorta was hitting .307/.399/.608 with 14 homers and 23 walks to 38 strikeouts for Triple-A, again looking the big-time bat all Indians fans hoped for (career minors numbers: .299/.392/.572). Considering the complete lack of offensive production the Indians have gotten from both left field and first base this year (Casey Kotchman: 68 OPS+, Shelley Duncan: 93 OPS+, Johnny Damon: 51 OPS+, Jose Lopez: 98 OPS+) if LaPorta approaches anything resembling an average player it will be a great move.
FanGraphs had LaPorta at -0.8 wins above replacement last season, but something that atrocious can’t be duplicated by a proud athlete, right? He has to want to shake that Quad-A player onus that now hangs about him. He had trouble with off-speed and breaking pitches last year and tried to pull the ball when perhaps he should have tried to use the whole field. He’s a dead-red hitter without the demonstrated pitch selectiveness at the major league level that’s given Adam Dunn a nice career, and his 206 to 81 K/BB ratio over 1008 MLB plate appearances before 2012 tells the story of his demise. It’s a big day and the (sometimes irrational, but can you blame us?) hopes of Indians fans everywhere are in full effect. If he can turn that corner, LaPorta can be a game changer.
Let’s take a look at what he did in his season debut Sunday afternoon.
- First at-bat: Third inning, leading off (nobody on, nobody out) vs. Scott Diamond
Halfhearted applause greeted LaPorta as he came to the plate.. It wasn’t the dream return for Matt, that’s for sure. After taking an 88 mph fastball outside, he fouled another one low and in the zone (87 this time) into the ground to even the count at 1-1. Diamond came back with an 84 mph change-up that broke down out of the zone, and LaPorta whiffed badly on it. Pitch four was a change down and away (the touchstone of Twins pitching) and LaPorta swung hard and almost impaled Shelley Duncan when he lost his bat and it went flying. It was just an ugly showing, and he walked back to the dugout with a look of utter incredulity on his face.
- Second at-bat: Fourth inning, two out, Duncan at first vs. Diamond
Cleveland had just scored two runs to narrow the deficit to 3-2, with Asdrubal Cabrera scoring on Duncan’s single in the previous at-bat. LaPorta had an early shot to make an impact, either give his team the lead by flashing that once-vaunTed Power or at least keep the train moving. The first pitch by Diamond was a high curve LaPorta took for a ball to get ahead 1-0. Diamond came back with an 88 mph fastball on the outside part of the plate that Matt swung and smacked into the dirt for a two-hopper to short, and the rally was killed. Being overly aggressive, not working the count when a pitcher is on the ropes, and not going with the pitch and using the opposite field were all issues for LaPorta last year. It did the Indians in here.
- Third at-bat: Seventh inning, leading off vs. Diamond
Again Diamond came at LaPorta with an off-speed pitch up, but this time it was way out of the zone and Mauer almost didn’t hang on to it. The 1-0 pitch was a fastball away. LaPorta tried to pull it and hit a hard grounder to third. Trevor Plouffe couldn’t make the play at the hot corner—he was running away from the ball and toward the line trying to backhand it and blew it. It was one of three errors the Twins made in the game, and like one in the fourth that led to an RBI single by Jose Lopez, this one paid dividends. Lou Marson came up behind LaPorta and rocketed one into the gap in left. LaPorta scored from first, showing an impressive hustle that we rarely saw last year. Perhaps he’s in better shape, or maybe he knows his hold on the majors is tenuous at best. Either way, he scored a run and despite a poor approach at the plate he took advantage of what he was given.
- Fourth at-bat: Ninth inning, leading off vs. Matt Capps
Matt Capps’ first pitch was a 94 mph fastball right down Broadway and LaPorta swung away. He drilled it on the ground between Plouffe at third and Brian Dozier at short for his first hit of 2012. He was quickly erased as the next man up, Casey Kotchman, grounded to second for a very casual double play.
So there you have it. In LaPorta’s first day back he went 1-for-4 with a run scored and a strikeout. Pretty reminiscent of many a game last season, complete with a chance to get a big hit (or do something at least) in which he instead ended the rally. Three times he tried to pull a ball on the outside part of the plate and hit a grounder (one was a hit and the other an error, but that’s still not what you want out of a supposed power threat) and he whiffed hard on an off-speed breaking ball. He wanted to pull the ball every chance he got and bounce it off that baby Green Monster in left, and you just can’t do that with pitches on the outside corner. That’s the difference between Triple-A and the majors—pitchers have good secondary stuff and can locate their pitches better. Scott Diamond is better than most pitchers LaPorta would have seen at Columbus, and he handled Matt with aplomb.
We have at least two more games of LaPorta to see if he was just too amped up with it being his first day back. But if he does almost anything at the plate, it will be an upgrade, found money for the Indians really, and if not just ship him back south. It’s a shame he’s fallen so far, but let’s hope this is the murmur that begets the bellow of a beautiful season.