Tommy La Stella is the one of the most unique players on the free agent market this offseason. He’s a lefty who has been platooned for most of his career, but really found his footing in 2019 with the Angels and this past year with the Athletics. After playing more than 93 games just once in his career, he played regularly in 2019 before an injury, as well as in 55 of 60 games in 2020, showing he has the potential to be an everyday player.
La Stella’s most interesting trait is his ability to avoid strikeouts. He struck out just 5.3 percent of the time last year, a number that was best in the majors by a long shot. For reference, DJ Lemahieu was second best, striking out in 9.7 percent of at-bats nearly double the rate of La Stella. There are a number of factors that contribute to his ability to avoid strikeouts, but the most important seems to be his contact rate. La Stella made contact on 90.2% of pitches this year, which is unheard of in an era when strikeouts are more prevalent than ever.
With so few strikeouts, is La Stella sacrificing power just for the sake of contact? It doesn’t seem that way. He’s not going to wow you with a ton of home runs, but he can still hit for decent power – his exit velocity and xSLG (expected slugging percentage) were both right at the league average this past year. A recipe that combines average power with spectacular plate discipline and a strong tendency to put the bat on the ball makes for a solid hitter.
The numbers speak for themselves. Since his trade from the Cubs to the Angels prior to that 2019 season, La Stella made a clear effort to cut down on his plate discipline, and it’s paid off. Over the last three seasons, his strikeout rate has dropped in each year. After starting at 14.1% with the Cubs, it plummeted to 8.7% with the Angels, then fell even further to the aforementioned 5.3% this past year. As a result, La Stella produced a wRC+ of 122 in 2019 and 129 in 2020, the latter being a career-high.
We know he’s a solid hitter, but where would he fit in with the Red Sox? The options are endless thanks to La Stella’s versatility. He’s played first, second, and third base over the past two years, two of which are positions of need for the Sox. It appears Christian Arroyo and Michael Chavis are the current starting options at second, with Bobby Dalbec and perhaps Chavis again as the first base options. La Stella would make for an improvement over all of three of those players, and at worst, he’d be a great platoon option for them. A La Stella signing would alleviate a reliance on strikeout-prone guys like Dalbec and Chavis, both of whom I don’t fully trust.
MLB Trade Rumors projects La Stella to sign for a deal that covers 2 years and is worth $14 million total, a contract that is quite reasonable for a 31-year-old coming off his best year in the majors. As mentioned above, a short-term deal such as that would take pressure off of the Sox’ unproven players, and potentially bridge the gap between now and whenever Jeter Downs takes over second base.