Wednesday, May 29, 2024
AnalysisMLBNational LeagueNL WestSan Francisco Giants

Tommy La Stella Is a Perfect Fit For Giants

Heading into the offseason, one clear goal of Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi was to add a left-handed bat to the lineup, particularly someone capable of playing an up-the-middle-position. It may have taken until the end of January, but he finally met that objective.

In fact, the three year, $19 million contract Zaidi gave infielder Tommy La Stella is the largest commitment he has made since taking over in San Francisco. On the surface, a three-year deal for a soon-to-be 32-year-old with a limited track record may not seem like a logical move for an executive that is generally extremely responsible/conservative when it comes to free agency. However, as the team looks to not only be competitive in 2021, but in the upcoming years following, La Stella is the perfect addition for them, and this contract should yield surplus value.

For the first five years of his career, La Stella served as a role player for the Braves and Cubs. After compiling 360 plate appearances as a rookie in Atlanta in 2014, he totaled just 587 plate appearances in the four seasons after that, and Chicago non-tendered him following the 2018 season. As it turn outs, that was the best thing that could have happened to him.

See, even in a limited role, La Stella always demonstrated to be ability to be an above-average offensive producer. Between 2016 and 2017, he averaged a 116 weighted-runs-created plus (wrc+), and although his year-to-year numbers were inconsistent, that’s the nature of serving as a pinch hitter, though he adjusted to that role quite well with a career 115 wrc+ as a pinch hitter.

Nevertheless, it’s safe to say La Stella was never going to get more plate appearances in Chicago, who, at the time, had an abundance of quality infielders. In hindsight, however, they probably wish they would have held onto him. After signing with the Angels, he received an everyday role, and immediately proved to be worthy of it. By virtue of a 125 wrc+, he earned an appearance in the All-Star game, although a knee injury cost him to miss the entire second half of the season. Still, in just 80 games, he was worth 2.0 fWAR, which is quite impressive.

Yet, even the Angels weren’t ready to buy into La Stella, as after signing Anthony Rendon, they didn’t have a clear spot for him. By now, however, you have hopefully learned that this is not new for the former 8th-round pick, and due to a multitude of reasons – Rendon missed the first few games of the seasons and shortstop Andrelton Simmons suffered an ankle injury – he found his way into that dreaded everyday role once again. He carried that same role over to the A’s, who acquired him at the trade deadline as the hoped to make a World Series push.

Overall, La Stella’s numbers were even better than they were in 2019. His 129 wrc+ was a career high, as was his .370 on-base percentage. With offensive numbers like that, he theoretically could have commanded more on the open market, but given his small track record, it was always likely that he wouldn’t be successful in doing so.

If La Stella proves his breakout is legitimate, then this contract is a bargain, but can we expect him to continue to produce at a high level? The various projections sites are quite mixed on him. Steamer projects him to post a 110 wrc+, while ZiPS believes he’ll only post a 100 wrc+. However, there are plenty of reason to believe he’ll overachieve those projections.

Plate discipline metrics are the most stable in terms of year-to-year correlation, and few players control the strike zone better than La Stella. Over the past two seasons, he has walked (47) more often he has struck out (40), while his chase rates (23.7%, 22.2%) and swinging strike rates (4.5%, 3.7%) have been off the charts. With an average exit velocity of 88 MPH, La Stella doesn’t hit the ball very hard, so making as much contact as possible is critical, and is why his expected stats have been comfortably above average. An increased amount of balls hit in the air, in addition to his selectivity, has also allowed him to maximize his power output.

Now, I’m skeptical about La Stella maintaining his increased power production. Per Baseball Savant, only two of his 22 home runs have classified as “no doubters”, and Angel Stadium played perfectly to his strengths. At Oracle Park, only eight of his home runs from 2019 would have still been home runs. At the same time, his offensive production stems from his on-base ability, and his ability to spray consistent contact, in addition to his plate discipline, should allow him to continue him to perform well in a ballpark with wide dimensions.

As mentioned, Zaidi wanted to add a left-handed-hitting infielder, and it makes sense as to why. Currently, the team’s starting second baseman is Donovan Solano, who a) benefitted from a lot of batted-ball luck and b) is best served in a platoon. Additionally, third baseman Evan Longoria also has clear platoon splits, so it won’t be difficult for La Stella to find at bats. He might not be elite defensively, but he can fill in at second base, third base, and first base, and clearly improves the team’s ability to hit right-handed pitching; something they struggled with last season.

Personally, a two-year contract for about $18 million seemed fair for La Stella, so the Giants should be getting proper value here. Expect the team to continue to shop for another outfielder (they’ve shown interest in Jackie Bradley Jr.), while they could use more pitching depth. This might not be a team ready to compete, but they’ll be able to score runs, and when that is the case, who knows what can happen! An expanded postseason and universal designated hitter could do wonders for this team, though, regardless, signings like this could turn out to be needle-movers when they aim to be even more competitive in 2022.