19 February 2014

What Can the Orioles Expect From Matt LaPorta?

It’s old news now (especially with the recent Suk-min Yoon and Ubaldo Jimenez signings), but two weeks ago, the Orioles agreed to terms with first baseman Matt LaPorta.  While LaPorta has name recognition as a former top prospect, what separates this signing from the majority of other minor league Oriole signings reported this winter is the fact that LaPorta did not receive an invite to spring training.  That last piece of information alone probably indicates there was not a lot of demand for LaPorta, and the team probably isn’t expecting him to be a big contributor at the major league level.

Matt LaPorta is probably best known as the main player going to the Cleveland Indians in the CC Sabathia trade during the summer of 2008.  At the time, LaPorta was considered one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and his minor league numbers backed it up, as his career minor league triple slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) prior to the trade was .293/.393/.609, reaching Double-A in the process.  He was the quintessential “three true outcome” hitter who would provide a lot of home runs, walks, and strikeouts.  Despite the potential for high strikeouts, talent evaluators believed that if he made enough contact, his power could make him a potential star.  ESPN’s Keith Law ranked LaPorta as the #37 prospect in 2008, and #27 in 2009, and said the following about him during his ’09 rankings:

LaPorta's power is prodigious, and he gets very good extension through the ball; he's strong enough to power the ball out the other way but can get too pull-conscious. His swing is a little long, but he hasn't had trouble making contact through Double-A, fanning in just 19 percent of his plate appearances in pro ball.

To the extent that he continues that, he can be more than just a three-true-outcomes player and would elevate himself from "above-average regular" to "potential star."

In fact, LaPorta’s minor league career mirrors that of another “three-true-outcome” player the Orioles already have on their roster: Chris Davis.  Compare and contrast their minor league statistics.  First for LaPorta…

Matt LaPorta Minor League Statistics
…and now for Davis.

Chris Davis Minor League Statistics
Davis was definitely the better hitter of the two, but LaPorta showed a better eye at the plate, while also improving his strikeout rates as he moved to the upper levels of the minors.  Additionally, both struggled during their initial taste of the major leagues.  Prior to receiving regular playing time with the Orioles in 2012, Davis had accumulated over 1,000 plate appearances in the major leagues, and had not found any semblance of success.  However in 2012 as we all know, Chris Davis turned himself from a AAAA player to a productive major leaguer, and then took it another step forward in 2013 by becoming a legitimate MVP candidate.  Similar to pre-2012 Chris Davis, LaPorta has yet to find success at the major league level, and currently finds himself with just over 1,000 career major league plate appearances.  His career triple slash line matches up incredibly well with pre-2012 Chris Davis, so could Matt LaPorta be ready for a similar breakout?

Chris Davis and Matt LaPorta Major League Slash Lines
Looking at this table may provide some hope for a breakout from LaPorta, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  First of all, similar to their minor league numbers, LaPorta doesn’t possess the power that Davis does.  More importantly, as the figure below shows, LaPorta has a huge hole at the plate that pitcher’s have exploited during his brief time in the big leagues.  See if you can find it…

Additionally, since LaPorta made his major league debut in 2009, he’s had a very troubling trend when it comes to his pitch selection and plate discipline, which was once one of his greatest strengths.

Matt LaPorta Plate Discipline
Each of those columns is trending very badly in the wrong direction.  As a former top prospect that has yet to find any sort of success in the major leagues, it appears that LaPorta has been pressing at the plate.  It’s possible that a change of scenery and a more patient approach stressed by the Orioles’ instructors could benefit him this year, but with plate discipline numbers that ugly, I wouldn’t bet on it.

If the Orioles can somehow work their magic on LaPorta the way they worked their magic on Chris Davis, this signing will look like a stroke of genius.  However, since LaPorta doesn’t add any extra value on the bases or in the field, he’ll have to really hit this spring in order for the Orioles to even consider giving him a spot on the 40-man roster, which already contains several players possessing the same set of skills, many of whom have actually had some success at the major league level.  So while Baltimore could potentially find themselves with another winning lottery ticket, it’s much more likely that this signing was to provide the team with (hopefully) replacement level depth.

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