Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Room for Improvement: Matt LaPorta

Of course, this whole series was prepared before the Indians signed Russ Branyan and his Three True Outcome Machine to ostensibly play first base. See, the idea from my perspective is that LaPorta would play first, and Mike Brantley would play left, and then the only question would become when we could replace Brantley in left because, look, Mike Brantley can't actually hit. But hey. He can play D and got on base some and he's not entirely Trevor Crowe.

I think LaPorta fits in better at first base because that way, he isn't in left field. Okay, that's not entirely fair: LaPorta is not exactly Pete Incaviglia or Skates Smith out there, but ... look, he's a first baseman.

And so is Russ Branyan.

Now, once upon a time, Branyan was a THIRD baseman. Sure, he anodized his frying pan back in the day, then handed it down to Corey Smiff for safekeeping, sort of a lineage thing that lives on today with Wes Hodges' Cast Iron Special 3000, but he was not arrested for fraud while standing near the third base bag in actual professional baseball games. As far as I know. Baseball-reference.com is a bit incomplete on the matter. But the point is, Russ Branyan is a first baseman now. Let's put it this way: Jhonny Peralta is the third baseman, and has nothing to fear from Russ Branyan defensively. Neither does Wes Hodges. Let that sink in.

Back to the point: I did this calculation based on Matt LaPorta getting some 500 plate appearances, but ... y'know, I don't see that as something that's really out of the question, Branyan or no. Branyan's already tweaked his back and will likely miss time over the course of the season (if he's not flipped for something in July anyway). Travis Hafner is not going to hold up for 162 games and there will be DH opportunities. Mike Brantley is not so special that his presence on the roster would preclude having LaPorta play left. LaPorta may play a LOT of left, in fact. I'm not all that crazy about that, but look: any position Ryan Garko can play, Matt LaPorta can play with even less comedic effect.

So let's say LaPorta gets those 500-600 plate appearances. PECOTA calls for him to post an optimistic .264/.347/.477 line. What would that look like as a first baseman?

Paul Konerko, .277/.353/.489 621 PA 23.4 VORP
Russ Branyan, .251/.347/.520 505 PA 22.4 VORP
Lyle Overbay, .265/.372/.466 500 PA 18.2 VORP
Ryan Garko (CLE), .285/.362/.464, 273 PA 11.2 VORP

I'm not comparing LaPorta to any of these players per se, but rather looking at players in the same kind of statistical ballpark. Note that if you double Garko's PA, you get 546 PA and a 22.4 VORP.

How about left fielders? Not an exhaustive list, but consider:

Juan Rivera, .287/.332/.478, 572 PA 22.4 VORP
Nolan Riemold, .279/.365/.466, 411 PA 20.8 VORP

I can't really believe I'm writing this, but I actually expect less of Matt LaPorta than Nolan Riemold. I'm kind of rooting for Riemold and the O's, and I've been a Cleveland fan long enough to expect, if not actually the worst, then at least the below-average.

But here's the point: if LaPorta can put up those slash stats and get the kind of plate appearances I expect, he'd be in the 20-VORP neighborhood, wherever he plays.

Now, how reasonable is this projection? It sure looks more like his quasi-mythical minor-league slugging numbers than the major-league struggling we saw. I mean, it's not like LaPorta played in imaginary minor leagues, but the player I saw in Cleveland last year did not look like the Manny Ramirez/Jim Thome wunderslugger I was led to expect to see. Obviously, it's not fair to compare ANYONE to Manny Ramirez, but ... look, the guy drew 12 walks in nearly 200 plate appearances and posted a .308 OBP. That's just not very good.

On the other hand, LaPorta is moving noticeably better in the spring after having off-season surgery, and has those 200 major-league PA under his belt now. I think he will be a sounder player physically AND mentally in 2010.

It is entirely possible that LaPorta will far exceed my modest expectations, but the man was traded for C.C. Sabathia and has a heckuva uphill climb for me to think of him in any other light. He may also continue to hit in a somewhat newtlike fashion and not really contribute a whole lot at all. The man is 25, after all. But with a paltry 2.9 VORP contribution last year, I think it is hardly stretching credibility to project a 17-point improvement in VORP from Matt LaPorta this season.

(More would really help.)

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