Matt LaPorta is still only 27 years old, but he’s already had over 1,000 plate appearances in the big leagues. So at what point do past failures prove more meaningful than the promise of youth?
Through his first three seasons LaPorta’s stat line reads more like a weak-hitting middle infielder than a corner infielder: .238 BA, .304 OBP, .397 Slug pct. In fact, only two others players in Tribe history have posted such a meager stat line through three seasons – both middle infielders from the turn of the century.
So is there any reason to hope for a sudden turnaround by LaPorta? Or is has he already cemented himself as the next John Gochnaur?
To answer this, let’s look at how LaPorta stacks up against some similar prospects in recent years.
Among corner infielders and/or corner outfielders to debut in the last 25 years, six players (excluding LaPorta) have posted an OBP < .310 and a Slug Pct < .400 with a minimum of 1,000 plate appearances through their age-26 season.
Given such a modest stat line, in order to stay on the field these players needed to be top prospects (in most cases). Like the Indians with LaPorta, teams wanted to see what these guys could do at the major league level, and were willing to wait out their struggles – to a point.
The most recent guy on the list, Andy LaRoche, is now in the Tribe system and will complete with LaPorta for a roster spot this spring (won’t that be exciting to watch). And given the fact that he is just one year removed from this list, he offers little insight into LaPorta’s future. From 2005 through 2008, LaRoche was ranked among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects, peaking at No. 19 in 2006 and 2007. But he has never been able to stick at the major league level, despite opportunities with three different franchises. Last season in Oakland, LaRoche appeared in 40 games, with a slightly improved OBP of .320, but failed to show the power necessary to play the corners at the major league level.
Prior to LaRoche there was Jose Guillen, who is perhaps the most encouraging name on this list. While Guillen struggled early in his career, his age-27 season was his breakout campaign. Splitting the year between the Reds and A’s, Guillen hit .311 with a career-high 31 home runs. Over the remaining years of his career, Guillen would post an OBP of .330 with a respectable .462 Slug pct.
But before Guillen came Marc Newfield, the worst-case scenario for LaPorta. Coming up in the Mariners system, Newfield was a top-50 prospect every season from 1991 through 1995. However, Newfield managed just a .201 average in his days in Seattle and was traded to San Diego in 1995. In 1998, still only 25 years old, Newfield would be given his last chance, this time with the Brewers. He would bounce around the minors with the A’s and Red Sox organizations, but never reached the majors again.
Eric Anthony is perhaps the best statistical comparison to LaPorta. Anthony began the 1990 season as the 8th-ranked prospect but struggled so mightily (10 HR, .192 BA, .297 OBP) that he was off the list all together in 1991. By 1992 the Astros were determined to play their former top prospect every day, and he struggled for two years before being traded to Seattle for Mike Hampton in 1994. While Anthony did show improvement – .344 OBP in remaining years of his career – his inconsistency was too much for teams to handle. After leaving Seattle at the end of his age-26 season he bounced from Cincinati to Colorado to Los Angeles and was out of the majors before the age of 30.
And now for our hometown example, the late Carlos Martinez (also known as the guy who hit a home run of Jose Canseco‘s head). Prior to joining the Tribe, Martinez was a promising young third baseman in the White Sox organization. In just over 100 games in 1989 he hit .300. And when Robin Venteura reached the majors in 1990, they shifted Martinez to first base, where he started until a young rookie by the name of Frank Thomas took over in mid July. While it was hard to ignore Thomas’ promise, it was equally tough for the White Sox to ignore Martinez’s .252 OBP. The Indians signed him that offseason, and in the following two seasons he would post a dismal .298 OBP, while hitting just 10 home runs in 141 games. He remained in Cleveland for his age-27 season, but showed no improvement with a .295 OBP in 80 games. He was out of baseball before the age of 30.
The final name on our list is Charlie Hayes, who began his career with San Francisco in 1988 but was traded to Philadelphia the following season. In his age-25 and 26 seasons, Hayes was the Phillies every-day third basemen and, for inexplicable reasons, played in 294 games during that span, in which his .277 OBP made LaPorta look like a young Jim Thome. But as bad as Hayes was early in his career, he turned it around, with some help from the thin Colorado air. At age 28 in 1993, Hayes belted 25 home runs in Colorado, with a .355 OBP. But he wasn’t purely a product of the Rockies ballpark. Hayes also posted three non-Colorado seasons with an OPS over .725.
So… what’s does all this tell us about LaPorta?
While the results vary dramatically, on average, these players did show some improvement. Their collective OBP rose to .318 in their age-27 season, and then spiked above .340 in both their age-28 and age-29 season. However, it should be noted that while some short-term improvement was apparent, only Guillen and Hayes sustained their careers into their 30s.
So while LaPorta may have a long career left ahead, if he doesn’t turn it around quickly, the clock is ticking.