The Indians are about two week away from opening spring training 2011. One of the biggest question marks heading into the 2011 season will be the performance of Indians first baseman Matt LaPorta. LaPorta's development may of been slowed after he had hip surgery following the 2009 season. I wanted to look back and research LaPorta's history from college through his time in Milwaukee and his handling by the Cleveland Indians. What I found was a guy who has been oft injured, well travelled (crazy 2008 six week period), and never able to settle in for an extended period of time without injury creeping up. The road to major league success has certainly been filled with obstacles. As a Tribe fan, let's hope that 2011 is a season of calm tranquility for the now 26 year old first baseman.
Many in the Tribe-centric blogosphere have diagnosed Matt LaPorta and reported his flaws. Most of the stories have affirmed what scouts have said about him since he was ranked as the Brewers #1 prospect by Baseball America prior to the 2008 season and as the Cleveland Indians #2 prospect by Baseball America Prior to the 2009 season:
BASEBALL AMERICA 2007 (Pre-2008 Season)
Like most young hitters, LaPorta still has to learn how to handle breaking balls, both quality pitches for strikes and those off the plate.
BASEBALL AMERICA 2008 (Pre-2009 Season)
Like a lot of power hitters, LaPorta still has some holes in his swing—in his case, high and inside, and against off speed pitches low and away.
Adam Vanarsdale (APV) of Let's Go Tribe illustrates the scouting reports perfectly in his article December 2010 article titled Pull LaPorta. In the article he states the following about pitches LaPorta sees and includes the below graphic from Foxsports.com:
It is probably not surprising that relative to his teammates, LaPorta sees relatively few fastballs. Across the past two seasons, he has only seen about 54% fastballs, well below league average and one of the lowest on the Indians team. Instead of getting fastballs, LaPorta gets a relatively large number of sliders (~20%), curveballs (~10%) and changeups (~10%), and he struggles with them.
Jon Steiner of Waiting for Next Year (WFNY) and Paul Cousineau of the Diatribe had a back and forth regarding LaPorta in a column called Jon and Paul Baseball: What to do about Matt LaPorta. The article is from December 8, 2010 and includes many links to data provided by B-Reference and Fangraphs. In my opinion the debate is a good primer for pre-Spring Training 2011.
Many are still hopeful that LaPorta can produce as the scouts from Baseball America wrote prior to the 2008 season:
LaPorta has game-changing power and doesn't have to pull the ball to get it out of the park. Area scouts who covered him said his approach improved in 2007, and he also kept his hands inside the ball better and made more consistent hard contact. Unlike many sluggers, he also has a good eye at the plate and will take a walk if he doesn't get a pitch to hammer.LaPorta would be ranked #14 on the MLB.com top 50 list following the 2008 season (video).
Matt LaPorta entered the University of Florida as a catcher, spent time in the OF, and eventually played a little 3b and 1b. His stock rose dramatically after his sophomore season after he hit .328, and led all of College Baseball in Home Runs with 26, and led the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in slugging percentage (.698) and RBI (79). He posted an an impressive 1.136 OPS. LaPorta's stock fell after an oblique injury his junior season limited him to only 43 games where he hit .259 with 15 home runs and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 14th round. LaPorta returned to Gainesville for his senior season and put up another monster season. He would hit .401 with 20 Home Runs and lead Division 1 with a .582 OBP and 1.399 OPS. He would be named the first ever two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year.
LaPorta was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers with the 7th pick of the 2007 draft and signed quickly (June 25, 2007) for 2 million dollars. His debut was delayed as he was fighting through an injured quadriceps muscle. He hit 12 home runs in 130 plate appearances between Rookie League Helena and Class A ball West Virginia. Following the late start in the 2007 season, the Brewers sent LaPorta to the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League (AFL) where he hit .241 with a league leading 6 home runs. His assignment as a first year player to the AFL was rare but the time spent there would lead to a spring training invite and gave the Brewers organization the confidence to move him to AA Huntsville to start the 2008 season.
LaPorta began the 2008 season ranked as the 23rd prospect on Baseball America's Top 100 List. The Brewers started him in Huntsville and through the first 88 games he hit .288 with 20 home runs, an on-base percentage of .402, and a slugging percentage of .576. On June 30th he was named to the U.S. squad for the All-Star Futures Game to be held at Yankee Stadium on July 13th. On July 7th LaPorta, right handed reliever Rob Bryson, outfielder Michael Brantley, and left handed pitcher Zach Jackson were traded to Cleveland for Tribe Ace C.C. Sabathia. LaPorta reported to Akron where he was informed on July 16th that he was named to the Olympic Baseball Team playing that August in Beijing. The day after finding out that he had made the Olympic Team, LaPorta found out his grandfather had passed away and was dismissed from the Aeros to attend the funeral. On July 28th, LaPorta reported to Team USA in California only to fly back to North Carolina for one last tune up game before heading to Beijing. LaPorta struggled in Beijing going 1-15 with a HR and 3 RBI before being hit in the head by a pitch on August 18th. He went to the hospital, had a CAT scan, and was diagnosed with a mild concussion. He returned for the bronze medal game and hit a solo home run. The Indians sent LaPorta to the Dominican League for a brief stint where he struggled hitting .165 with 2 home runs and struck out 22 time in 67 at-bats over 17 games.
LaPorta started the 2009 season ranked #27 on Baseball America's Top 100 List. He began the season playing for the Columbus Clippers. In a very odd move, the Indians called LaPorta up from Columbus on May 3rd and sent him back to Columbus on May 25th. He only appeared in 13 games which covered a total of 49 plate appearance during which time LaPorta hit .190 with 1 HR and 4 RBI with a dismal OPS of .571. LaPorta received his recall from Columbus on August 20th and hit .273 with 6 HR and 17 RBI, a OBP of .315, and a SLG% of .489. Overall in Columbus, LaPorta settled in and hit .299 with 17 HR and 60 RBI, a .388 OBP and a .530 slugging percentage. Between LaPorta's positive finish with the Indians and his impressive numbers with the Clippers, there was reason to believe that Matt LaPorta was ready to have his breakthrough season in 2010.
After returning from Columbus, LaPorta played 21 of his first 23 games in LF. The Indians wanted to see if he could play 1b and transitioned him over there in mid-September. This may of caused some aggravation to his hip as Eric Wedge commented:
"I'll tell you what happened. I guarantee you it's from him moving from the outfield to the infield. It's happened before. You're using different muscles at first base. You're doing a lot more squatting, a lot more bending. I'm sure that had something to do with it."
LaPorta was trying to score and seemed to tweak the hip coming around third (video here) against the Tigers on September 22, 2009. As if the hip injury wasn't enough to occupy LaPorta over the winter, he slammed his left toe into the monster at Fenway on the last day of the season. The Indians had said that the off-season of rest would heal LaPorta's hip, so it came as somewhat of a surprise that the Indians announced that LaPorta had left arthroscopic hip surgery"debridement of a bony impingement in the joint." performed by Dr. Marc Philippon and also had a surgical procedure performed by Dr. Thomas Clanton to address his left big toe in Vail, Colorado. The rehab time for the hip was 4-6 months, which would put LaPorta behind to begin spring training 2010.
LaPorta broke camp with the Indians and appear in 35 games prior to getting sent down to AAA Columbus on June 7, 2010. He hit .217 with 1 HR, 7 RBI, and an OPS of .567. Nino Colla at The Tribe Daily wrote an article titled The Problem Matt LaPorta Against Everyone detailing his early 2010 season struggles. Manager Manny Acta said that he wanted LaPorta to get consistent at-bats and find his swing. LaPorta's time in AAA was short and productive. He played in 18 games and hit .362 with 5 Home Runs, 16 RBI, a OBP of .457, and a SLG% of .638. LaPorta was recalled by the Indians on June 27, 2010 and continued to hit upon his recall. In his first seven games back from Columbus he would hit .360 with 3 home runs and 7 RBI before finally cooling off. John Sickels at Minor League Ball would write a story titled Matt LaPorta: Not A Rookie with a look at LaPorta's future after his recall. LaPorta did getting knocked out by Elvis Andrus (VIDEO) but that didn't seem to affect LaPorta as he continued to hit over the next ten games after his the incident. After his second recall LaPorta would appear in 75 games and hit .222 with 11 home runs, 34 RBI, an OBP of .313, and a SLG% of .401.