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Indians Indians Archive Opposite Field #9: Matt LaPorta & The "Quad-A" Debate
Written by Andrew Clayman

Andrew Clayman

laporta-quad-aNigel Wilson. Bruce Aven. Alex Ramirez. Jason Dubois. Ryan Mulhern. These are just some of the distinguished names that have been immortalized as MVPs of the Cleveland Indians’ Triple-A farm club in recent years, be it in Buffalo or Columbus. But now, as he’s on the cusp of joining this illustrious company, you suddenly want Matt LaPorta back in Cleveland? Have you no decency, Sir?!

Yes, for the past week or so, the debate over the fate of the 27 year-old LaPorta has started picking up steam again, spurred by the perfect storm of Matt’s mash-tastic April in Columbus and Casey Kotchman’s craptacular groundout clinic in Cleveland. It’s no secret that the 29 year-old Kotchman wasn’t exactly the big fish in the first baseman free agent pool this past offseason. But his acquisition was at least—objectively speaking—a short-term upgrade. After two years of incorporating powdered donuts into our weight loss plan, the time had come to switch to a bland, organic granola bar for breakfast. It was the proper, rational move; we just expected the granola bar to hit above .170.

So now, only a month into the 2012 season, some of us are already jonesing for those deceptively enticing powdered donuts again. Even with the Indians in first place and Johnny Damon officially blocking two of LaPorta’s possible re-entry points (Matt’s split time between LF, DH, and 1B in Columbus), the clamor for a switcheroo has become increasingly audible. Paul Cousineau finds the whole thing so maddening that he’s dropped a moratorium on the whole topic. I wish I had his icy, Draper-esque resolve. Instead, Cleveland’s renewed love affair with LaPorta has me analyzing that obnoxiously trendy term for Triple-A studs who supposedly can’t crack it in the Bigs: “Quad-A."

Interchangeable with the no-less insulting “4-A” or “Jeff Manto,” the Quad-A tag basically suggests that some players are simply not wired to make that final leap from AAA to the Majors, regardless of the gaudy numbers they put up on the farm or the number of chances they get with the Big Club. It’s usually easier to identify these players’ limitations in retrospect, but sometimes the warning signs are there early on—a long swing, a stone glove, a lack of plate discipline, or—for pitchers—wildness, low K rates, and questionable mechanics. Mental deficiencies also come into play a lot with theoretical Quad-A guys, as they can’t seem to make necessary adjustments or overcome adversity like their veteran Major League peers.

Some baseball people claim that the Quad-A concept is a myth—that anyone who excels for an extended period in the Minors can eventually do the same in the Majors, given a fair shot. That’s certainly a reasonable assertion, as there are countless examples of players who just needed a little extra time to flip the switch (David Ortiz, Jose Bautista, and, unfortunately, Brandon Phillips spring to mind). But an argument that supports one potentiality does not automatically dismiss another. Fact is, there are loads of Triple-A legends who slammed into an unscalable wall at the next level, and while the reasons certainly varied, the evidence is hard to ignore: AAA statistics routinely say very little about what can be expected of you after a call-up—especially if you’re over 25.

The 4-A Team

manto-laporta“If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the 4-A Team.” A good place to look for them, naturally, is in the Cleveland Indians organization, producer of many of the great Triple-A flameouts of recent memory—including the prototype for the species, the aforementioned Jeff Manto, who hit 243 Minor League homeruns in his career vs. 31 in the Bigs (despite at least a dozen opportunities to make an impression with the Tribe and other clubs).

Even more Manto references await. But first, let’s get back to the man of the hour for a minute: Matthew Vincent LaPorta. For those arguing in favor of benching Kotchman and handing the first base job back to the Great MaTola, the prime basis for their case—aside from Kotchman’s notable slow start-- is the following statistical line:

24 Games, 9 HR, 20 RBI, .371 AVG, 1.188 OPS

That’s Matty Boy’s production thus far in Columbus. Admittedly, even the staunchest LaPorta bashers have to pause for a moment at digits like that. After taking a deep breath and a brief gander at the man’s recent AAA past, however, perspective quickly sets in—particular when you look at his last somewhat extended stint in the state capital back in 2010.

Matt LaPorta as a Columbus Clipper

2009: 93 games, 17 HR, 60 RBI, .299 AVG, .917 OPS

2010: 18 games, 5 HR, 16 RBI, .362 AVG, 1.094 OPS

2012: 24 games, 9 HR, 20 RBI, .371 AVG, 1.188 OPS

There is little room for misinterpretation here. Matt LaPorta has always hammered AAA pitching. All told, in 137 Triple-A games, he sports a .995 career OPS. Meanwhile, in almost exactly twice as many games with the Indians, that number tumbles to a sub-pedestrian .701. Even this season, LaPorta's OPS is almost 600 points lower outside the friendly confines of Huntington Park, and he's whiffed 21 times vs. 12 walks. 

So, do all these inconvenient factoids mean LaPorta is incapable of “figuring it out” and realizing the potential heaped on him after the CC swap four years ago? Not at all. Weird shit happens in baeball. But if it never happens for Matt, he certainly won’t be alone in Quad-A purgatory. Just have a look at the Indians’ Triple-A team leaders in OPS over the past 15 years.

Buffalo/Columbus OPS Leaders, 1997-2011 (Min. 50 Games)

Year….. Player ………….… OPS …… Career OPS in Majors

1997 …. Jeff Manto …....…. 1.121 ...... .744

1998 …. Jeff Manto ………. 1.153 ...… .744

1999 …. Jeff Manto ………. 1.152 …... .744

2000 …. Russell Branyan ..  .906 ...…. .814

2001 …. Greg LaRocca …..  .903 ..…. .689

2002 …. Karim Garcia …....  .855 …... .703

2003 …. Coco Crisp ……… .945 ...…. .731

2004 …. Russell Branyan ..  .948 …… .814

2005 …. Jeff Liefer ………… .983 …... .679

2006 …. Jason Dubois …… .835 …… .729

2007 …. Ben Francisco …... .878 …… .762

2008 …. Todd Linden …….. .861 …… .638

2009 …. Andy Marte ……… .963 …… .635

2010 …. Carlos Santana … .1.044 …. .826

2011 …. Cord Phelps …….. .868 …… .494

Not exactly a murderer’s row of future stars. In fact, 2009’s supreme Columbus slugger Andy Marte has been the popular go-to example for the Anti-LaPorta camp this week, as they cite the two players’ similar paths from top-flight prospects to overmatched Quad-A disappointments, doomed to forever slaughter Minor League pitching in virtual anonymity. And thus far, all indications are that the Tribe brass has similar suspicions.

The Twist Ending

kotchman-laportaSo perhaps you think you’ve just read an anti-LaPorta piece—some cynical tripe about how a good thing won’t happen just because good things usually don’t happen. Well, that’s a pretty fair assessment. But I do feel like I ought to mention another ball player that’s heard his share of "Quad-A" talk during his up-and-down career. Once rated the league’s #6 prospect by Baseball America, he tore through the Minor Leagues, hitting .371 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2004, and making his Big League debut that same year at just 21 years of age. He remained the Angels’ first baseman of the future for the next couple of years, but against Major League pitching, he continued to scuffle.

In 2007, he finally showed some signs of realizing his potential, putting up 11 HR, 68 RBI, a .296 AVG, and an .840 OPS in 137 games with Anaheim. The OPS sunk to .738 a year later, however, and by 2009, he had devolved into a hapless journeyman, with unremarkable stops in Atlanta, Boston, and Seattle—where he hit just .217 in 125 games with the Mariners in 2010.

Last year, this Quad-A afterthought—at the age of 28—took a do-or-die gig with the Tampa Rays. And with basically no one thinking he deserved another shot, Casey Kotchman hit .306 and posted an .800 OPS for the first time in four years.

So, is Casey proof that Quad-A failures can settle into a useful role in their late ‘20s? Or are his abhorrent struggles with the Indians better evidence that he’s just as much of a scrub as people thought he was?

Fact is, neither Kotchman nor LaPorta ever managed a Big League season as productive as the ones the recently released Jose Lopez (also 27 years old) put up in Seattle. So while Kotchman may have earned himself a $3 million payout this winter, the case could be made that he and LaPorta are really just two peas from the same pod. One has a better glove, and one hits right-handed and with more power. But neither are going to fix the attendance problems at Progressive Field.

For the moment-- with the Indians rolling-- it's safe to assume Kotchman will have plenty of time to get his business in order. But should he continue squibbing out to the mound two to three times a game, the Columbus Clippers could very well find themselves deprived of a hero. And we'll all have Matt LaPorta to kick around again.

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