Tommy La Slugger: How Angels' La Stella found his power stroke

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Monday, May 20, 2019

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Tommy La Stella had compiled 947 plate appearances across five major league seasons by the time he turned 30, a sample representative enough to typecast. The numbers described him as a slap hitter with no power, and La Stella could've been fine with that. His strengths -- putting pitches in play, differentiating balls from strikes, getting on base -- were enough for sustained employment in his line of work. Change seemed unnecessary. Imprudent, even.

But La Stella remained firm in his belief that there was more in him. Now he stands among the great statistical marvels of the 2019 season, as he has hit more home runs through seven weeks than he managed through five seasons.

"It is weird," La Stella said. "And it's crazy that it's seemingly coming right away, at the beginning of the season. But I always felt like I had the ability to drive the baseball."

La Stella has gone deep more times than Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. He belted his team-leading 11th home run in his 109th at-bat of 2019 after managing only 10 of them in 828 at-bats from 2014 through 2018. The Los Angeles Angels' confounding second baseman has three multi-homer games, despite entering this season with only one, and he trails just eight major league players in home run percentage.

There is no logical explanation. La Stella, listed generously at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, hit one home run in 169 at-bats while serving mostly as a pinch-hit specialist for the Chicago Cubs last season. He has since increased his launch angle significantly, from 8.1 degrees to 14.1 degrees, but La Stella displayed similar launch angles in seasons prior. He should theoretically see more fastballs by hitting in front of Trout, but La Stella didn't start batting leadoff until May.

"I can't explain it, and I'm not really going to search for the answers," Angels manager Brad Ausmus said. "I'll just stay out of the way."

La Stella will tell you that he's back to who he always was -- or, more accurately, who he always wanted to be. He spent his first five seasons molding himself for the role laid out for him and along the way lost sight of who he was.

It began with the Atlanta Braves in 2014. Dan Uggla, a pull-happy, power-hitting second baseman, was struggling badly. The Braves called La Stella up because they liked how consistently he reached base in the minor leagues. They wanted someone to set the table for the next guy and nothing more. La Stella complied.

"I gradually shifted my sights toward the left side of the field," he said, "and I started to lose the ability to pull the ball."

It continued in the Midwest on loaded Cubs teams. Through four seasons, La Stella made 32 percent of his plate appearances as a pinch hitter, never getting the opportunity to build any semblance of a rhythm. His at-bats were merely about survival, about not wasting strikes and using his hands and doing everything possible to reach base. It was, in La Stella's mind, a different skill set altogether.

"I wanted to be really good at pinch-hitting because I knew that was going to be my role," La Stella said. "After a while, I kind of forgot that I at one point planned to be a very different hitter."

A trade to the Angels in late November brought the opportunity for more playing time. La Stella also saw it as a path to rediscovering himself. He arrived in spring training with intentions of swinging harder.

"It was a disaster," La Stella said.

He was either way out in front or swinging over the top of pitches that he used to drive, and he managed only eight hits in 48 at-bats.

Along the way, though, he found something. With the Cubs, La Stella constantly tinkered with batting stances that worked only to free up his hands. In search of a more consistent, sustainable approach, he went back to the stance he used at Coastal Carolina University, where he hit 28 home runs in 125 games -- legs straight, hands still, swing free. Suddenly, the ball was jumping off his bat again.

"It wasn't about tapping into the power. It was about getting back to who I was as a hitter pretty much my whole career," La Stella said. "Because I never had a problem driving the ball."

Only three players since 1900 have hit more than 20 home runs in a season after managing no more than 10 home runs in 800 or more at-bats prior, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The list includes Kirby Puckett (31 in 1986), Al Cowens (23 in 1977) and Brady Anderson (21 in 1992). Soon, La Stella will probably join them.

He has an OPS of .952 for the season, 241 points higher than his career mark before 2019. And he has accumulated 28 hits over his last 76 at-bats. In an industry that continually skews young, La Stella is proof that veteran players can still reinvent themselves and that all at-bats should not be evaluated equally.

La Stella doesn't lament his days as a pinch hitter. He credits the role with helping him condense his focus into two-minute intervals and forcing him to "be the simplest version of myself as a hitter, even if it wasn't the hitter I ultimately wanted to be."

He is, in a sense, a prodigious slugger now, the thought of which still makes him uncomfortable.

"To be honest with you, I feel a little strange talking about it because it is early," La Stella said. "It's just a start, and, you know, anybody can have a hot couple of months. But I feel more like myself again, which is comforting."