You know who you are—
the one waiting for a fielding error; the one watching some dude from Coastal Carolina take a situational at-bat off the bench; the one ever-listening for some stat to validate your bias—wondering, why is he still on the team?.
Tommy La Stella is the go-to left-handed contact hitter off of Chicago Cubs’ skipper Joe Maddon’s bench, and for good reason. La Stella is between teammates Dexter Fowler and Matt Szczur in contact percentage with 78.3%, making more hard contact this year than he has in his career at 32.4%, and has an above league-average BABIP (.319), nearly 20 points higher than the Cubs team total (.302), placing him sixth among Chicago Cubs position players.
His success at the plate with runners on are attributed to improved usage of his hands. When he was with the Braves, La Stella had a tendency to hold his hands behind his head in his stance. That creates an elongated swing plane, causing his hands to drop slower, and reduced swing speed. Now, under the tutelage of Chicago Cubs hitting coach John Mallee, La Stella’s hands are in front of his back shoulder, making it easier for him to make contact on all sides of the plate.
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La Stella is still hitting fastballs over 50% of the time, but his effectiveness at the low-end of the strike zone shows his improvement with off-speed pitches.
Besides La Stella’s improvements at the plate, his willingness to learn third base made him an integral part of Maddon’s plans for this season. Maddon has an affinity for utility players, hence the Cubs push to sign Ben Zobrist last offseason. It allows him to play defensive matchups the same way one can make offensive changes based on the opposing team’s pitcher.
In close games, Maddon will play those who have the highest fielding percentages on the team. Typically, this move sees Kris Bryant move to the outfield, and La Stella comes in to play third.
La Stella has committed fewer errors than both Bryant and Fowler, and has a higher Zone Rating (11.0) than both Anthony Rizzo (2.7) and Javier Baez (6.6) combined. The fact that his DWAR is negative is a bit surprising, however. I attribute this to his lack of playing time because of Baez’s defensive wizardry.
So, the next time you’re watching a Cubs game and La Stella is leading off or serving as a defensive replacement, remember: a strong bench will carry the weight of the playoffs much deeper into October than the starting lineup will alone. Maddon may be aging, but senility seems to be far in the distant future.