After two months' worth of poor production at second base from a mishmash of Dan Uggla, Ramiro Peña, and Tyler Pastornicky, Braves brass finally made the decision earlier today to recall Tommy La Stella, Talking Chop's number 3 prospect in the system.
Many (well, most) Braves fans have been pining for La Stella for much of the season. Uggla (.177/.254/.257, -0.3 fWAR), Peña (.164/.243/.299, -0.1 fWAR), and Pastornicky (.200/.300/.257, -0.1 fWAR), who was sent down to Gwinnett as the corresponding roster move for La Stella's promotion, have all provided sub-replacement level production in 2014, and patience ran thin with the trio of frustrating second sackers. According to manager Fredi González, La Stella will have the opportunity to serve as the team's everyday second baseman.
#Braves Fredi said La Stella will get opportunity to play on regular basis, Uggla will play when good matchup— David O'Brien (@ajcbraves) May 28, 2014
By recalling La Stella, the Braves hope to have chosen a second baseman who will provide a unique approach and skill set, especially in comparison with the production by the other three players who have seen time at the position this year. To be frank, the Braves' second basemen have been a complete black hole offensively this season, producing a 49 wRC+ cumulatively. La Stella's calling card since being drafted in the 8th round out of Coastal Carolina University back in 2011 has always been his offensive prowess, and Atlanta's brass is hoping that La Stella provides a shot in the arm for a team that has produced a rather paltry 89 wRC+ this season (indicating offensive production approximately 10% below league average), getting on base only 30% of the time. In addition, the Braves' lineup has been fairly righty-heavy this season (6 of 8 regulars have been righties for most of the season), and La Stella's lefty bat will help balance out the right-handedness of the lineup.
With that being said, it's probably time for me to dampen your excitement a bit like a true curmudgeon. Although I unequivocally expect La Stella's production to surpass what the Braves have seen from their second basemen so far this season, it's important to take into consideration that there's a real chance that La Stella isn't going to make a drastic difference for the lineup's fortunes.
Put simply, La Stella's approach at the plate is that of a line drive hitter who relies on contact skills and plate discipline in order to produce. La Stella's height may be Uggla-esque (he's listed at 5'10"), but he isn't going to be a player whose calling card is power production. La Stella's linear swing path and rather slight body composition limit his power production, as he only hit five home runs between AA and AAA (128 games) the past two seasons. In fact, he hit his first AAA home run last night, and it's a pretty good illustration of how La Stella's only over-the-fence production is going to come in the form of "wow, that line drive somehow carried out!" hits.
You can also see in the above video just how short and compact La Stella's swing is. He has very quiet mechanics at the plate with a simple load and trigger that allow La Stella to maintain low strikeout rates (7.1% at AAA this season, 10.5% at AA last season) and give him elite contact skills. La Stella has a knack for barreling the ball and making solid contact despite his relatively short stroke and lack of raw strength. The video below showcases what La Stella's all about--he goes with an outside pitch and puts a short, quick swing on it and dumps a line drive in front of the left fielder.
For hitters who don't produce tons of power, BABIP is key. La Stella's career minor league BABIP is .336, and considering his approach as a line-drive hitter who utilizes all fields, an above-average mark in the category is probably to be expected. This, combined with La Stella's aversion to striking out, will probably lead to a batting average that looks good on the surface for La Stella. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see La Stella put up a batting average in the neighborhood of .270-.280--he doesn't strike out much (and, as we know, hitters are .000 when striking out in the history of baseball), and he makes a lot of contact, some of which will inevitably fall for hits. Of course, as we've seen with Chris Johnson recently, some BABIP luck could make him a .300 hitter for periods of time, but if the BABIP gods are feeling less kind, La Stella could experience some truly ugly stretches.
So, what would La Stella need to do in order to augment this approach? The answer lies in his walk rate. La Stella's walk rate in the minors has been just a shade under 13% both this season and last, which is a quite a good number for a hitter who isn't a slugger in the mold of a Justin Upton. Fangraphs tells us that, were La Stella to post a walk rate similar to the one he has the past couple of years in the minors, his walk rate would be "great." Unfortunately, La Stella's walk rate is likely to be depressed in the majors as he sees pitchers with more skill and better control. Steamer projects La Stella's big league walk rate in 2014 to be 8.0%, which seems possibly a tad conservative to me. That rate would be slightly below league-average, and would serve to make La Stella's offensive profile pretty darn uninspiring.
Ultimately, I think that La Stella's probably going to end up posting a line somewhere in the neighborhood of .275/.345/.365. Steamer projects La Stella at .277/.340/.380, which would be good for a 102 wRC+, and I think that's pretty fair. An offensively-average player who would actually be above-average at his position is something that the Braves would be happy to have, especially considering the dearth of offense provided by those who have played the position before La Stella this year. As I mentioned earlier, we could see La Stella be even better with some BABIP luck, but by the same token, there could be some frustrations if he experiences poor luck on his batted balls. Such is life for a player with La Stella's skill set--they're prone to volatility due to luck. La Stella will likely provide plenty of singles, but how many extra-base hits he'll be able to contribute is something else to watch going forward. His below-average speed does not avail itself to turning singles into doubles, which hurts his overal offensive profile. La Stella's doubles production has dropped precipitously this season, with only 6 doubles (as opposed to 41 singles) thus far. Just remember, I coined "Tommy La Singles" before you did.
I'm not going to spend as much time discussing La Stella's defense, because it's more of a wild card and we have less of a statistical base to predict his abilities at the big league level in this facet of the game. La Stella's arm isn't strong and he isn't particularly agile, but he usually is described as an average-ish second baseman due to his instincts and fundamentals. Personally, I've always thought of La Stella's defensive capabilities as being slightly below-average mostly because of the aforementioned agility issues. I'm not overly concerned about his relatively weak arm due to his position, but it'll be interesting to see if he can supersede his below-average quickness and arm with good fundamentals and a high motor. I don't think that La Stella will provide value defensively for the Braves, but then again, I wouldn't expect La Stella's defense to hurt his value much, if at all. He's likely to be adequate defensively--nothing more, nothing less. After watching Dan Uggla's defensive adventures for the majority of the past 3 years, however, I'm reminded that things could be worse.
In conclusion, if I were to summarize what I expect from Tommy La Stella as a Major League second baseman in a phrase, it would be "average production." The chances that he'll be an impact player who makes a drastic difference for the Braves' lineup are not high, but then again, any upgrade over what the Braves have gotten from the position would be a helpful boost for a team with playoff aspirations.