The Cubs have gotten off to an incredibly hot start in 2016 and there have been a lot of early heroes for the North Siders this season. The most unexpected of these Cubs which has to be utility infielder Tommy La Stella. The little lefty has gone from contact hitter to slugging machine the first 30 games of the year and has been a great asset as a bench bat. After a rough start to his Cubs career, it is hard not to feel good for La Stella’s breakout.
La Stella was acquired from Atlanta in November of 2014 for flame-throwing right-handed pitcher Arodys Vizcaino. The Cubs coveted the slight middle infielder for the contact and on-base skills he displayed in his minor league career. After a strong spring in 2015, La Stella earned a spot on the opening day roster.
After only two games in 2015, La Stella pulled his oblique while swinging and went on the disabled list. He re-aggravated the injury during a rehab stint in Tennessee and missed even more time. When he finally returned to the Cubs in late August, La Stella served mainly as pinch hitter, where he excelled, hitting .429 in 16 appearances. Joe Maddon also gave TLS a handful of starts at third base, in addition to his natural second base, to give him more flexibility in the field.
Many observers, myself included, were left scratching their heads when La Stella was given a start at third during the Wild Card game. Maddon justified his decision by arguing La Stella’s high contact rate balanced the Cubs lineup against power pitcher Gerrit Cole. While La Stella went hitless against the Pirates ace, it demonstrated the faith Cubs management had in the 27-year-old.
After the Cubs’ spending spree this offseason, Tommy La Stella became somewhat of a forgotten man. Some even speculated that he should start the year at Iowa and let speedster Matt Szczur or others fill the role of 25th man on the roster. Maddon, however, was not one of those people and even bestowed the nickname 3 AM on La Stella this spring. As the manager put it, he could wake La Stella up at 3 AM and he would roll out of bed and get a hit. Still the decision figured to have little impact on a very deep Cubs roster in 2016.
Shortly after the season began, Kyle Schwarber, expected to play a huge role in the Cubs lineup, suffered a season-ending knee injury. Javy Baez was also on the disabled list with a hand injury. Suddenly, La Stella found himself being given an opportunity to start against power-pitching righties. Almost immediately, he began not only hitting the ball, but driving it with authority.
La Stella’s OPS has gone from .727 last season to an amazing 1.104 thus far in 2016. To put that number in context, Bryce Harper had a 1.109 OPS during his MVP campaign last season. It seems highly improbable that TLS will sustain that level of production for an entire season (and he’s not going to be put on base seven times like Harper was Sunday in Chicago), but it’s a heck of a start. Then again, maybe hitting for power really is a virus that is spreading through the whole Cubs roster.
Even if La Stella cools off somewhat the rest of the season, just a portion of that production against right-handed pitching will be yet another huge boost to an already scary lineup. More importantly, TLS strikes out less than almost anyone in baseball. Added on to the newly acquired Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, the Cubs have a group that can face down almost any style of pitching. It might be time for opponents to start setting their alarms for 3 AM, or maybe even earlier.