Bernstein: What The Hell Is Going On With Tommy La Stella?

A former Cub, La Stella is having a career year, already posting 11 homers.

Dan Bernstein
May 15, 2019 - 2:54 pm

(670 The Score) ​If I asked you who was leading the Angels in home runs and slugging percentage through 43 games, the expected answer would be Mike Trout, because he's arguably the greatest baseball player of all time.

It would also be wrong, because the correct answer is Tommy La Stella.

Not that Trout has turned into some kind of slouch, mind you, as he's off to his usual enough slash line of .290/.457/.557, good for a wRC+ of 170. But La Stella -- the former Brave and Cub who bounced up and down from Triple-A as a utility player and pinch-hitting specialist -- is pretty much step-for-step so far with his legendary teammate, slashing .291/.381/.609 and a wRC+ of 166. La Stella has 11 home runs to Trout's nine, already topping the total of 10 that he had hit previously in his entire big league career. His hard contact rate is an eye-popping 43 percent, a full 10 percent better than of his numbers from a previous individual season, let alone his career clip of 30.9 percent.

Had the Cubs expected this kind of production, they may have opted to stick with the well-liked veteran over Daniel Descalso, but there's also a decent chance the improvement might never have happened in Chicago, where his usage may have remained limited to occasional starts and late-inning at-bats against high-leverage relief arms.

La Stella has started 31 games for the Angels, and the regularity of plate appearances has allowed him to alter his approach. Matthew Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus got the opportunity to ask La Stella about the difference.

"I'm going to be facing guys later in the game, who are going to be throwing hard, so I'm not necessarily looking to drive the ball," La Stella said about pinch hitting. "I'm looking to work the count, put a barrel on the ball. It's a more defensive approach to hitting."

But now, he explains, more opportunities that include more than one look at the same pitcher in a game allow him to make adjustments he previously couldn't. 

"Whatever felt right in the moment I would go with, just because pinch-hitting is a little bit different" La Stella told Trueblood. "You have your one at-bat to make a contribution, so mechanics go out the window. It's more of a 'work with what you've got' type of thing. Having the more consistent at-bats allows me to put better swings on pitches."

It's quite clear he's doing just that. As Baseball Prospectus has noted, La Stella has become more selective, swinging at 10 percent fewer pitches outside the zone this season than he has for his career, with a contact rate of 89.8 percent and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 8/13. What's more, an increase in launch angle to 15.2 degrees is responsible for that hard contact, resulting in increased average exit velocity.

And before you ask, the BABIP number that often flashes warnings of regression may be doing so now, but not in the way you might imagine. La Stella's career average on balls in play is .289, and he's only at .222 this year. So he hasn't even been the beneficiary of much good luck as this is happening.

Baseball -- particularly at the game's highest level -- is incredibly hard, or at least it's supposed to be. It's not meant to allow Tommy La Stella to become this.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in middays. You can follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.​​​​