The acquisition of Russ Canzler is the perfect segue into a look back at Matt LaPorta's 2011 relative to some of my thoughts from a year ago on what has ailed the disappointing "slugger." In the comments to that piece, I suggested a few positive indicators to look for from Matt in 2011.
2011 was not an entire disaster for LaPorta, despite the .247/.299/.412 line he produced. In particular, LaPorta actually did a much better going to the opposite field last year. LaPorta did actually reduce the percentage of balls in play to the right side to just under 25%, but perhaps more significantly, improved his line on balls to right field to .361/.355/.574. This was a dramatic leap from the sub .300 OPS on balls to the right side he had produced the past two seasons and not, based on his .333 BABIP to the right, simply the result of luck. LaPorta had nine extra-base hits to right last year, seven more than he produced in his career prior to 2011. LaPorta's success pulling the ball was not hurt in the process either, as he put up a .986 OPS to left. So why did he suck? Part of the answer seems to be he got on balls hit to center, hitting a career worst .661 on balls that direction, fueled by a .238 BABIP.
LaPorta's gains in hitting to the opposite field appear to reflect an improvement in his ability to hit breaking pitches (at least against RHP). As I noted last year, LaPorta sees very few fastballs. LaPorta was the only member of the 2011 Tribe to see less than 50% fastballs (49.2% according to fangraphs), and saw more sliders (22.5%) than anyone. The good news is that for the first time in his career he produced positive results (again based on fangraphs numbers) on both types of pitches. Changeups and curveballs were a different, and less encouraging, story. In summary, the good news is that LaPorta seems to have made some real adjustments last year that produced better results on at least some breaking pitches, giving him a better ability to utilize the whole field.
The bad news is these improvements still left LaPorta far short of being a good hitter.
And here the movement from 2010 to 2011 is not in a positive direction. LaPorta had swinging strikes on a career high 13.8% of the pitches he saw in 2011. His strikeout rate jumped over 22%, his walk rate fell by nearly half, and his K/BB ratio spiked from 1.78 to 3.78. His overall contact rate dipped to 71%, eight points below the league average. As he has done every season since he's been in the majors, he chased nearly 1/3 of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone (and as you might guess, pitchers don't pound the zone when LaPorta is at bat). Laporta must have been one of the worst batters in the league when he was ahead in the count, hitting just .226/.375/.321 in those situations.
Matt LaPorta's basic hit tool - his ability to see a pitch, recognize it, decide to swing or not, and make solid contact - is horrible. This is surprising for a guy with a career batting average at AAA of .313 and an overall minor league average of .298. Injuries, including a pitch to the head during Olympic play and offseason hip and toe surgery before the 2010 season, are almost certainly part of it. Last year was supposed to be the year it was different, as LaPorta had more time to rest and work out to prepare himself for the season. After a hot start, LaPorta declined every month until September garbage time. The Indians have filed positive reports on LaPorta's health and swing mechanics this offseason, but count me as a skeptic. Had LaPorta turned into what he looked like he would be in 2007 and 2008, the upcoming season would have a much rosier glow to it. Sadly, that version of reality is no longer possible.