One name that has come up multiple times this winter when discussing targets for the St. Louis Cardinals is Tommy La Stella. Why is this wrong?
In the eyes of an optimist, the free agent marketplace is a couponers paradise. In all of my 21 years as a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I don’t believe there has ever been a winter where there was so much mid-tier talent at what the prices are expected to be.
While the recent signings of Robbie Ray and Drew Smyly suggest the market might not be as bad as was originally thought, the absence of position player signings means that market hasn’t been set. There are no delusions that the top tier of the market will get the money they have earned but for the mid-level players (where the Cardinals like to live), the belief is still there that players will be cheap.
One player who is in this range that has been connected to the Cardinals is Tommy La Stella. On the surface, La Stella looks like a perfect fit. As a part-time player the past few seasons, La Stella has shown some pop with 16 homers in 80 games in 2019, and an ability to be a high-contact, low strikeout batter.
The Cardinals need more power, and with the loss of Kolten Wong, bringing in someone like La Stella to play half the time makes a lot of sense. However, a deeper dive into La Stella’s last two years of performance unveils some things that don’t project confidence moving forward.
La Stella has had fantastic performances in two areas in the past two seasons. After coming up with the Braves and spending four years on the Cubs’ bench, La Stella hit 16 homers in 2019 in just 80 games after his previous high was just five homers.
In 2019, La Stella found the extra power by jumping his hard hit percentage up to 31.2%, higher than his career rate of 29.3%. This isn’t enough of a significant jump to cause worry, and La Stella actually underperformed slightly by descriptive stats. However, the flags come in 2020 when the small sample size made things a little wonky.
First off, La Stella’s underlying stats regressed across the board. His expected slugging took a 70 point dip from .494 in 2019 to .424 in 2020. With that expected dip, his actual slugging remained close to his 2019 level at .449. The troubling thing here is that La Stella got tremendously worse against the fastball between 2019 and 2020. In 2019, La Stella batted .311 with a .569 slugging percentage against fastballs which he faced 59.3% of the time. In 2020, he dropped to batting .270 against the fastball while slugging .470 against them facing fastballs 61.3% of the time.
To me, this says that pitchers attacked him more with the fastball, and shocker, he couldn’t sustain a .569 slugging against the pitch. While the difference between expected and actual slugging in 2019 was -.008, the difference in 2020 grew to -.033. So not only did his actual slugging regress against fastballs, his expected regressed by a wider margin.
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Similar trends are found against breaking balls and offspeed pitches.
The other fantastic performance and red flag was his low strikeout rate that some have been touting. In 2020, La Stella was in the top 1% of the MLB in strikeout rate. At just 5.3%, this mark is well below any other rate of his career, and is half of his career 10.5% average. His walk percentage jumped from 6.2% in 2019 to 11.8% in 2020, more than 2% above his career value of 9.4%.
On the surface, La Stella’s .819 OPS in 2020 and .832 OPS in 2019 make him seem like a stellar bench bat or part time starter. However, those underlying stats are very concerning when you think about what type of player La Stella may be when looking forward to 2021 and beyond.
La Stella will be 32 in 2021 and will be one bat that teams in the mid-tier market will have to fight over. On the surface, he looks like a good fit to be an infield option, but small sample size aside, the Cardinals should stay away from La Stella. There are too many similar options on the market that will cost the same but don’t have the red flags.
At the end of the day, it does all come down to price. If teams see these red flags and stay away, La Stella is worth any further risk of regression at a price. However, the Cardinals need to find that price and stay away if it isn’t what the market dictates.