Where were you when you found out the Cubs had acquired Tommy La Stella from the Atlanta Braves for Arodys Vizcaino in November 2014? I was in line for Swedish Meatballs at IKEA.
Oh, you don’t remember? Yep, makes sense. I’d imagine most folks don’t have that moment ingrained in their memory and haven’t spent all that much time thinking about the Cubs’ backup infielder and pinch hitter extraordinaire. Nonetheless, in his third season with the Cubs, Tommy La Stella continues to make a nice impression in infrequent action. Having spent a couple stints at Triple-A Iowa during the 2017 season, La Stella spent the majority of the year in a bench role in Chicago. With another successful year under his belt in limited duty, La Stella has positioned himself nicely to continue in this role into the 2018 season.
Position: 2B, 3B
|Tommy La Stella (2017)|
Year in Review:
The 28-year old posted the highest WARP of his career at 0.9 and his best slashline thus far at .288/.389/.472. La Stella’s extended numbers also point in good directions. Most notably, his walk rate of 13.2 percent and strikeout rate of 11.9 percent were both much better than league average and marked improvements from both his 2016 performance (10.7 percent walk rate, 16 percent strikeout rate) and his overall career numbers (10.5 percent walk rate, 12.2 percent strikeout rate). Impressively, La Stella and Anthony Rizzo were the only Cubs hitters in 2017 to have higher walk rates than strikeout rates. Simultaneously, La Stella also experienced the first slight power surge of his major league career, as he hit five home runs, meaning more than half of his nine total career homers came in 2017.
Yet, though much of La Stella’s game improved in 2017, his batted ball numbers were less impressive than the year before. Consider his flyball rate of 33.9 percent, which was better than his career average of 31.9, but was a decrease from 2016’s 36.4 percent.
La Stella also hit line drives at a lower rate than he had in his first two seasons in Chicago, posting a 22.9 percent liner rate following seasons of 29.5 and 28.1 in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, as his line drive and flyball rates dropped, his ground ball rate increased, jumping up to 43.1 percent, after coming in at 35.5 in 2016. However, La Stella remained a quite productive player by maintaining a hard contact rate of 32.1 percent (higher than league average) and limiting soft contact to a rate of 15.6 (lower than league average).
Nonetheless, probably the most exciting development for La Stella in 2017 was his improved plate discipline. Always a solid contact hitter, La Stella made great strides in determining more prudent pitches to swing at. In 2017, his O-Swing rate of 25.4 percent was lower than his 2016 output (28.7) and his career average (26.4), while his Z-Swing rate of 63.2 percent was higher than his career average (60.8). In other words, La Stella was swinging at less pitches out of the strike zone and swinging at more pitches in the strike zone, both great signs for a player whose calling card is an ability to make hard contact and to get on base frequently.
This improved discipline was particularly on display in La Stella’s work as a pinch hitter where he walked at a shocking rate of 22.7 percent. In 44 plate appearances (so, small sample size caveat, but since we’re talking about pinch hitting, nobody really has a large sample size), La Stella hit to a legitimately terrific .290/.488/.419 line with that aforementioned impressive walk rate, good for a 154 wRC+. His terrific work as a pinch hitter was one quality that truly made him invaluable to the 2017 team and sets him up quite well for bench roles in 2018 and for many years to come.
Entering arbitration for the first time this offseason, La Stella is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make a 2018 salary of $1 million, an exceptionally reasonable price for a guy who produced a 126 wRC+ in 2017.
Entering into 2018, La Stella figures to return to the same role he has held during the last three seasons with the Cubs, as a bench bat who periodically will fill in to give infielders Javier Baez, Addison Russell or Kris Bryant a bit of rest. However, La Stella’s role for the foreseeable future in Chicago will not even be as the primary infield backup as Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ’s versatility can see them cycled into the fold more frequently. What may be most advantageous to La Stella’s argument for increased playing time is that Baez, Russell, Happ and Zobrist’s names have all been tossed around in trade rumors so far this offseason. If any one of those four players is, in fact, moved, La Stella may see himself getting a bit more sustained playing time in 2018.
There’s also the possibility that another team comes calling about La Stella, who could probably be a starter on a few teams in the majors. While it’s hard to see the Cubs parting ways with a very solid bench bat who is only costing them around a million dollars and is controllable for the next three seasons, it’s not impossible that the team parts with La Stella if the right offer is on the table. Maybe his inclusion can help even out a more lopsided deal?
But presuming that La Stella stays put, one area of particular interest will be how he meshes with new hitting coach Chili Davis. Taking a look at some numbers indicates that they could hit it off quite nicely (HA! “Hit” it off! That’s the type of premium content ya get here at BP Wrigleyville!). In 2017, Davis’ Boston Red Sox were one of the teams that made the most contact on pitches in and outside of the strike zone. In 2016, the Sox led the majors in all contact-related areas.
|Boston Red Sox Contact %’s (2016-2017)|
|Year||O-Contact % (rank in MLB)||Z-Contact % (rank in MLB)||Contact % (rank in MLB)|
|2016||68.6% (1st)||89.2% (T-1st)||81.6% (1st)|
|2017||67.3% (2nd)||87.1% (T-2nd)||79.6% (T-3rd)|
While it’s hard to determine the specifics of what a hitting coach brings to an organization without being in the clubhouse, Davis’ MO appears to be “make contact.” And if that’s his goal, he may find a new favorite pupil in Tommy La Stella, whose 2017 contact lines (80.2% O-Contact, 91.4% Z-Contact, 88.2% Overall Contact) are all much higher than the Red Sox’ excellent rates. Of batters with over 100 plate appearances in 2017, La Stella’s overall contact rate and Z-Contact rate were both the 14th highest in baseball. He’s an elite contact hitter and Davis appears to be a hitting coach who likes guys who make tons of contact. It is worth wondering if teaming up with Chili Davis can help take La Stella’s game to another level, and make his case for playing time even more valid.
Tommy La Stella was an unheralded trade acquisition. He was never one of the critical core franchise players and he never will be. But don’t sleep on what the Cubs found in him – La Stella is a very valuable bench force who gets on base solidly, makes an extremely high amount of contact, and has emerged as an elite pinch hitter. With three more years on his contract, in all likelihood, La Stella is here to stay. The Cubs and Cub fans should be quite pleased about that.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports