Tommy La Stella Might Be Cubs’ Best Leadoff Hitter
The Cubs aren’t scoring runs. No matter what lineup Joe Maddon writes out, Cubs batters can’t hide from the fact that they are facing the game’s premier pitchers. There is, however, one player who makes sense as a spark for a struggling Cubs offense: Tommy La Stella.
Not only could 3 AM provide an offensive boost, but he could establish the tone at the top of the order. “Leading off for the Cubs, Tommy La Stella,” has a nice ring to it.
The utility infielder finished the season with a .368 wOBA and 126 wRC+ in 151 plate appearances. Granted, La Stella performed poorly in Iowa during his 121 plate appearances, only totaling a .253 wOBA against subpar competition. Whether or not he is truly an above-average hitter is difficult to determine, but his big-league sample surpasses several peripheral stabilization points, including plate discipline and contact metrics.
First and foremost, La Stella possesses a strong eye for the strike zone. He only swung at 23.5 percent of pitches outside the zone (O-swing) this year, and his career 25.3 percent average suggests a unique ability to lay off bad pitches. That o-swing rate is nearly identical to Ben Zobrist’s team-best 23.4 percent. And La Stella’s discipline is immensely more appealing than Jon Jay’s 37.6 percent rate. La Stella basically swings at 37 percent fewer pitches than the Cubs’ normal leadoff guy.
Second, Jay’s contact rate of 81.6 percent is marginally above the league average of ~79 percent. But La Stella’s 88.5 percent contact rate ranks in the top five percent in MLB. When the small lefty does swing, he’s going to make contact most of the time, and he’s probably going to make stronger contact than Jay.
Roughly 32 percent of La Stella’s batted balls are considered “hard-hit,” while Jay’s 25 percent hard-hit rate is below the league average of 30 percent. Exit velocity isn’t everything, but it’s also hard to ignore the fact that La Stella hits the ball about four mph harder than Jay. Statcast-derived xStats further suggest La Stella could be a better option atop the Cubs order, too. The Cubs second baseman’s xOBA (expected weighted on base average) of .357 didn’t deviate much from his overall .368 wOBA. Jay, on the other hand, recorded an xOBA of .317, which is 13 points below his overall .330 wOBA.
Of course, all of La Stella’s aforementioned numbers are from a sample size nearly the third of Jay’s, and it isn’t totally fair to compare the two so rigidly. But the samples are nevertheless stable and, visually, TLS looks like he’s hit the ball with more authority.
All of this is to say that I want La Stella in the lineup batting leadoff. He takes about 37 percent more pitches outside the zone than Jay, exhibits top-tier contact, and hits the ball much harder than the regular leadoff man. For a team desperate to work deep at-bats and manufacture runs, La Stella seems like perfect medicine.