It’s strange, isn’t it? After last season, one would imagine that any discussion of Tommy La Stella in late August would likely feature details of his parting of the ways with the Chicago Cubs. Yet, here we are at that point on the calendar and instead, it’s quite the opposite. In fact, Tommy La Stella, in his time at the big league level this season, has proven to be an absolutely essential piece off the bench for this year’s squad—to the point where he’s on his way to stealing more playing time in an already relatively crowded lineup.
The saga of last year left a bad taste when La Stella went rogue after his demotion to Iowa. But after contemplating for a rather extended period of time, he rejoined the team and there was a lot of talk as to whether or not that would permanently strain the relationship between La Stella and the team. Nonetheless, he’s handled his demotion(s) this year with far more grace, with the Cubs having little choice due to a lack of minor league options for other position players.
At this particular juncture, though, nobody is likely planning to use La Stella’s name and Iowa in the same sentence.
The total body of work paints a rather stellar picture for the Cubs infielder. His 1.1 WARP is, by far, a career best, with impressive numbers across the board in his 106 plate appearances heading into Monday’s action. His slash features a .322 average and .419 on-base percentage, while his TAv for the season comes in at an astounding .352. FanGraphs’ park-adjusted offense statistic, wRC+, also has him coming in at an extremely favorable 157 for the season. Both TAv and wRC+ help to validate La Stella’s production as that of a well above-average offensive player.
What’s perhaps more encouraging is the fact that La Stella is walking at a rate of over 13 percent, while striking out at a rate of barely 10 percent. La Stella sports the best contact rate on the team, with an 84.9 percent mark, while his 33.3 percent hard contact rate represents a career best. The pop has been there in spades as well, with an isolated power figure coming in at .352. Obviously, that number takes more plate appearances than La Stella has to his name in order to stabilize, but it really speaks to the impact of La Stella’s presence.
August has been a particularly favorable month, as La Stella has notched his highest number of plate appearances for the season this month. Heading into Monday, La Stella had appeared in 15 games, with 36 plate appearances across those. He’s hitting .367 and reaching base at a .429 clip, along with an ISO of .333. It’s also the month in which he’s made the hardest contact, with a Hard% just a touch over 40 percent. N0t only does that really speak to the comfort and confidence that La Stella is demonstrating at the plate, but it’s allowing him to push for more playing time.
There are elements of Tommy La Stella’s skill set that have always made him a relatively intriguing entity, though just how intriguing does vary by the individual. The approach and contact ability are what was always going to earn him playing time, and those are exactly the elements that are going to push him into the lineup with regularity as we begin to move into the home stretch.
Obviously, there are no shortage of position players fighting for time in this lineup, but the effectiveness of such players does vary greatly, especially when you consider the lack of contact from Ian Happ, or the uncertain health of Addison Russell, or Ben Zobrist’s paltry numbers with runners in scoring position. La Stella’s combination of approach (4.30 pitches per plate appearance – a career high), which is reflected in his excellent walk rate, and high contact, as he is pacing the team in that regard, make him as intriguing an option as any for the Cubs at this point.
And there’s the versatility element there as well. While his defense isn’t going to be mistaken for someone similarly versatile like Javier Baez, the fact that he can play second, third, and perhaps even some first base, should allow the Cubs to slot him in the lineup with some semblance of regularity. Perhaps that comes with Kris Bryant in the outfield or Javy Baez at short, or even the former with Baez at third.
Regardless, as things stand right now, with an offense that has demonstrated something of a penchant for fizzling out at inopportune times, Tommy La Stella is forcing his way into the lineup with the same skill set that has always allowed at least some level of intrigue to remain surrounding him. His role for the remainder of the season, and beyond 2017, will be a fascinating element of this team to continue to study moving forward.
Lead photo courtesy John Geliebter—USA Today Sports