“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of change. You just . . . come out the other side…Or don’t.”
– Stephen King, The Stand
Hopefully, we all know to take our antibiotics to the completion of our doctor’s prescription, even if we feel better. Bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, if they are exposed to the antibiotics and are allowed to survive. Once you start taking antibiotics, you want to kill the bacteria. Kill ‘em all. Kill ‘em all real good. (And thus ends my PSA.)
In hopes of eradicating the career of Matt LaPorta, AL pitchers follow a prescription of off speed and breaking pitches. Inducing the twisted torso of a swing and a miss, pitchers throw a steady stream of breaking balls and changeups. All to avoid the troublesome contact that haunts their dreams like so many demon-possessed cars and cabin-fever caretakers.
The prescription for LaPorta is simple. LaPorta is a fastball hitter. So, deny him his heart’s desire. Don’t throw him a four-seam fastball in the strike zone. Show him fastballs outside the zone, and feed him a steady diet of breaking balls and off-speed pitches.
Through April 20, LaPorta has seen the fewest fastballs in the American League (45 percent). LaPorta has seen the seventh-most sliders in the AL. Moreover, pitchers are only throwing in the strike zone on 45.8 percent of their pitches (the league average is 47.4 percent).
This prescription had initial success.
LaPorta looked miserable at the dish during spring training. He would chase a slider out of the zone, wince, and step out of the box to collect himself. His spring training numbers were the career-killing kind at .153/.215/.356. It was only the absence of competition that kept LaPorta from a trip to Triple-A.
Through his first eight games, LaPorta hit .231/.344/.385 with six strikeouts. While an improvement from spring training, these are still not major league-quality numbers. The treatment plan seemed to have the proper trajectory. LaPorta would be yet another failed prospect unable to hit a major league breaking ball. He would be labeled a bust, float from team to team, sign minor league contracts each spring, and split time between the major league bench and Triple-A. In other words, he would become the quintessential 4-A player.
However, something has changed. LaPorta shows signs of becoming slider-resistant.
Over his last eight games, LaPorta has hit .286/.394/.536 with 5 strikeouts. He doesn’t look pained at the plate. Even when he chases a slider outside the zone, he doesn’t wince anymore.
Over the total 16 games he’s played, LaPorta still swings at 30.2 percent of the pitches outside the zone. He only makes contact on 77.2 percent of his swings. Both of these percentages are below league average. However, they are both improvements from last year, when he chased pitches 33.7 percent of the time and made contact on 75.8 percent of his swings.
Of course, the season is still in its infancy.
But in the face of an onslaught of sliders, changeups, and curveballs, LaPorta’s numbers trend upward. Furthermore, LaPorta is beginning to show the ability to hit hanging breaking balls. He doubled on April 20 on a Hochevar hanging slider. Pitching a hitter a steady stream of breaking balls and off-speed pitches risks teaching him to recognize those pitches.
LaPorta might mutate into Matt “Captain Trips” LaPorta, a superflu hitter that you can no longer cure with a slider and a change.
If LaPorta adjusts to the breaking pitches, then we can think about projecting his major league career based on his minor league numbers. He has a .296/.362/.563 career minor league triple-slash mark. This may not project superstar production, but this may hint of an Aubrey Huff-like player.
But Cleveland doesn’t need LaPorta to be a superstar. In the near future, their lineup could have productive hitters in spots one through nine. Grady Sizemore, Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, and (a healthy) Travis Hafner are all productive hitters. Their top prospects, Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis, look to fill holes at third and second, respectively. That leaves first base as the only hole to fill.
LaPorta is a critical player for Cleveland, because first base is the thinnest position in the system. Plan B is First Base By Committee, using Santana, Austin Kearns, Shelley Duncan, and Travis Buck. First Base By Committee isn’t much better than a bullpen by committee. Plan C is Nick Johnson.
And no, Nick Johnson isn’t the name of some hot young prospect that coincidentally shares his name with a broken-down veteran. Yes, it’s that Nick Johnson. The Nick Johnson that has had four surgeries on his wrist the last few years. I wish Johnson well; I hope that he can have some healthy, productive years. However, you have no depth at a position, if Johnson is part of your backup plan.
If LaPorta buckles under the daily dosage of breaking pitches, Cleveland’s near-term solution at first will come by trade or free agency. Cleveland wants to develop a talent-rich farm system that will be a constant source of major leaguers. Trading prospects for major leaguers is the antithesis of this strategy. However, Cleveland ranks last in attendance right now, so any free agents coming to Cleveland won’t be named Albert or Prince.
Setting back LaPorta sets back Cleveland. Pitchers will continue the heavy doses of breaking pitches. Whether it is enough to drive LaPorta’s bat to the bench or Triple-A remains to be seen. Or perhaps, LaPorta mutates and becomes slider-resistant. As Stephen King wrote about a different superflu, “There are no maps of change. You just…come out the other side…Or don’t.”