Recently Matt LaPorta, the semi-regular first baseman for the Cleveland Indians was optioned to Triple-A Columbus. His 11 home runs in 349 plate appearances could not offset a .238 batting average (BA), .289 on-base percentage (OBP) and an abysmal .693 on-base plus slugging (OPS) which ranks him 24th out of 27 players in the majors with at least 300 plate appearances as a first baseman. If you had asked Indians manager Manny Acta about LaPorta in May, he probably believed that LaPorta was beginning to figure things out when he posted a somewhat useful .818 OPS. Yet, for a player who had previously crushed Triple-A pitching to the tune of a .947 OPS over 474 career at-bats and maintained that dominance of Triple-A as recently as 2010, one might ask what purpose a demotion might serve and why the Indians chose to do it now. Early indications suggest the demotion is a temporary one with Acta stating that “[LaPorta] will get regular at-bats for ten days.” (http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/6910525/cleveland-indians-demote-matt-laporta-call-gomez)
Since LaPorta returned from a trip to the disabled list in mid-June for a sprained ankle, the Indians have had a habit of giving him three to four starts and a pinch-hitting appearance a week, mostly against right-handed pitching. As a right-handed hitter, it goes against conventional wisdom for LaPorta to be hitting primarily against right-handed pitching. However in his major league career, LaPorta has hit for less power and average though with a slightly higher walk rate against left-handed pitching (.211BA/.303OBP/.416SLG/.628 OPS vs LHP) than against right handers (.242BA/.300OBP/.416SLG/.716 OPS vs RHP) Though Triple-A syracuse is in the playoffs and it is unclear if they will be facing many, if any left-handers, the regular plate appearances would give LaPorta a bit more playing time. In addition, the demotion allows Carlos Santana, the Indians primary starting catcher, to get more starts at first base which keeps his bat in the lineup with the additional benefit of giving Santana a break from the daily catching grind.
The Indians also have an outside shot at the playoffs if they are able to overcome a five game deficit behind the AL Central leading Detroit Tigers. The Indians’ chances are aided by having six games against the Tigers in September and winning the match-up could make the difference if they get hot. The Indians have also been a bit strangled with injuries all season with many of those injured players remaining on the 40-man roster. Thus, the active roster expansion on September 1st to the 40-man roster means that not as much flexibility is possible in staffing a depleted roster. The Indians also acquired Jim Thome to do a job that LaPorta has so far been unable to do – provide offense. Thome is currently bucking his career trend by smashing southpaws to the tune of a .945 OPS while still being more productive against right handers than LaPorta with a .765 OPS.
Beyond the playoff chase, the rationale behind the decision to demote LaPorta provides some insight on how the Indians handle their personnel. As the prime acquisition from the Brewers for C.C. Sabathia and a former first round pick, LaPorta projected as a middle-of-the-order power hitter. The Indians’ need for such a hitter has been exacerbated due to the decreased effectiveness from the aging and often injured trio of Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Shin Choo Choo. LaPorta at age 26 is still seen as young enough to develop into a long term asset. As reported by ESPN, Acta believes, “He needs work on plate discipline. He’s projected as a walks, power guy and it is still not there.” Plate discipline also involves choosing good pitches to swing at and on the pitches LaPorta is making contact, he is hitting flyballs twice as often as he is hitting ground balls. While power hitters tend to hit more flyballs, flyballs are also easier to turn into outs than groundballs, so a focus on a more line-drive oriented approach may help his batting average.
If LaPorta is able to make adjustments to where a few more balls in play to drop in for hits and he can reach base a few more times via walks, it is conceivable he could add 50 points to his batting average and thus, increase his slugging and on-base percentage by similar amounts. Those kinds of gains in his rate stats would just nudge him into the .800 OPS range which is marginally acceptable for an offense-first position like first base, but more importantly, it would be a significant step towards assuring LaPorta more regular playing time at the major league level so that he can figure out how to be as effective against quality pitching as he has been against minor league pitching. As the Indians take this long-term view on LaPorta’s development, they are also able to address their short-term needs by putting the best lineup on the field in the hopes of achieving a playoff berth. Thus, demoting LaPorta shows off the Indians’ ability to plan for the future while fielding a more competitive need in the immediate present which is a balance that not many organizations can readily accomplish.
Mark Shapiro (@MarkShapiro) – Tough one today but still another series win. Need to keep taking series, get healthy + take care of business when we play DET!
Matt Swartz (@Matt_Swa) – And I have to say that I hate that the saber debate among Phils fandom is always reduced to Ryan Howard. Cus I do like watching him a lot.
BaseballFact (@BaseballFact) – Greg Maddux never struck out Tony Gwynn (107 PA)
Jay Jaffe (@jay_jaffe) – Hey, I haven’t said anything mean about Cervelli in at least a
month, because his playing time level has been appropriately infrequent
Eric Seidman (@EricSeidman) – Logan Ondrusek would be the starting pitcher on the team of guy whose names sound like 90s action movie villains.
STATS LLC (@STATS_MLB) – #Yankees’ Sabathia has allowed 5 HRs to lefties this season. #RedSox have hit 3 of them (Gonzalez, Ellsbury, Crawford). #MLB