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40 in 40: Tommy La Stella seeks to reinvent himself, again

Changes La Stella has been seeking to make with his swing have been sidetracked multiple times. Will he reach his final form with the Mariners?

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Philadelphia Phillies v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Some great artists are content to make variations on a theme album after album, staying within their musical lane, doing what they do best and doing it well. No one is telling Adele to write fewer piano ballads, and she wouldn’t stop if anyone did. For those with the rarefied skillset of an Adele—or a Mike Trout—there’s no need to reinvent the wheel around a generational gift.

But for others, reinvention is a necessary component of relevance. The Material Girl couldn’t have been carried out of the ‘80s and the era of conspicuous consumption, so Madonna began exploring her rebellion against her Catholic upbringing and societal mores around gender and sexuality in a way that helped define the confessional, introspective era of ‘90s mainstream music, setting off a career that would self-start every time the spark started to dim, a matryoshka doll of innovation revealing a new era with each successive album. Being the Adele/Mike Trout of your field is nice work if you can get it. For most others—the greats and the very goods alike—the Madonnas and Tommy La Stellas of the world, working with a more limited toolbox, it’s adapt or die.

Tommy La Stella broke into the bigs in 2014, with the team that drafted him, Atlanta, and then just as quickly was traded to Chicago for Arodys Vizcaino. On the night of his callup, a 0-4 loss to the Red Sox, Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said: “He got a couple of hits, putting the ball in play...You couldn’t ask for anything more out of him.”

For the next several years of La Stella’s major-league career, this would be the common refrain: he would get a couple of hits, put the ball in play, walk almost as often as he struck out, and get on base. He hit for a high average, if not prodigious power. You couldn’t ask for anything more out of him.

But when the Angels picked up La Stella in 2019 (for the now-released Connor Lillis-White) he’d had enough of of being serviceable with the bat; he wanted to be more than what was expected. Offered a larger role than expected due to injuries, La Stella forced his way into an everyday player for the Halos, building off spring training work spent with the Angels’ hitting coaches focusing on hand adjustments and finding barrels by adjusting his bat path, getting his launch angle back up to where it had been (between 13-14°) before falling to a grounder-inducing 8° with the Cubs in 2018. But it wasn’t just optimizing his launch angle; La Stella also made harder contact, a career-high 43.2 Hard% per FanGraphs (Savant has it at a more modest but still-improved 31.2%) and found more barrels—4.4/PA, a then-career high.

Comparing an at-bat from La Stella in 2018 with the Cubs and 2019 with the Angels, you can see right away the changes La Stella made with Anaheim: he’s standing more upright, and has raised his hands up significantly, moving them out towards the plate rather than holding them in close to his body.

You can also see the height of his leg kick has come down a little—this is the highest point in both of these at-bats, both timed to when the pitcher is releasing the ball.

Now look at the point of impact for each stance. With the lower leg kick, La Stella is more balanced, able to simply plant the front foot and turn to contact the ball. He ends with his hips square to the pitcher, able to shorten up his swing and get to a ball on the inner half of the plate and still make solid contact. The higher leg kick, on the other hand, forces La Stella into a less advantageous position at the point of impact; he’s still rotating his hips well and covering the plate, this time getting to a pitch well on the outside edge of the zone, but his back leg is bent behind him, sapping him of some additional power.

The other at-bat also winds up as a single, poked into the opposite field at 96.2 mph for an xBA of .790. It’s a good piece of hitting, late in the game when the Cubs need baserunners, winning the 1-1 count and all that, the kind that earns praise on the broadcast as a “professional at-bat.” (The Cubs would win this game, not because La Stella would come around to score in this inning, but because in the ninth, David Bote would hit a walk-off grand slam against Ryan Madson.)

But the 2019 hit, while also a single, is a better-struck ball, coming off the bat at 99 mph for an xBA of .910. It’s a slight tweak and a moderate gain in exit velocity, but the kind that can add up over time; barrel the ball up more often and good things can be expected to happen more often.

Who knows what La Stella’s 2019 could have looked like if not for the broken leg suffered right before the All-Star Game—robbing him of his first career All-Star appearance—when he fouled a pitch off his shin in a game against the Rangers, breaking his right tibia. La Stella made an admirable recovery and bounced back in 2020, earning a three-year contract with the San Francisco Giants that off-season, at the time the longest free agent contract given out under Farhan Zaidi, only to be hit by an owner’s lockout that delayed the start to 2022. Tired of these interruptions, La Stella joined up with Kent, WA-based Driveline to continue making improvements, specifically focusing on training for bat speed and increasing his power output. Others might not have asked for more from La Stella over his early career, but he was ready to ask for more out of himself.

In 2021, post-Driveline, La Stella made a slight alteration to his stance, beginning with his front leg back a little and his hips just a little more open. (Also, all these different screenshots do show the wide variety in angles in ballpark cameras; it should be noted that even though La Stella looks like he’s been hit with Mario Kart Lightning in the shot from Truist Park, that might be closer to representative of the generously-listed-at-5’11’ La Stella, all hail our newest Short King.)

That stance led to a lot of La Stella Singles like this from the first image, but also some humdingers like this one:

La Stella’s 6.2 Barrel% in 2021 still lagged behind MLB average, but it represented a career high for him, and his 5 Barrels/PA actually came out ahead of average. He added a full tick to his average exit velocity, putting him right around MLB average, posted his highest max EV mark (not counting the weird 2020 season) since his debut season, and consistently found the “sweet spot”—something he’s done his whole career, but now with more oomph behind it. Even more impressively, La Stella made these changes without sacrificing any of the elite plate discipline numbers that had propelled his career or losing contact, something that often plagues hitters embarking on a swing change.

Unfortunately, all those shiny numbers were obscured by yet another interrupted season—this time, due to injury. La Stella pulled his hamstring on the second day of May in 2021, leading to a lengthy rehab that was further complicated when he fractured his thumb fielding ground balls in infield practice. He didn’t make it back on the field for the Giants until August, and, while he produced over the final leg of the season, it wasn’t with much help from his legs, which required dual Achilles surgeries during the 2021 off-season.

Like the seminal Waitresses’ song “Christmas Wrapping,” our hero and the beloved (a full, healthy season) just didn’t seem destined to get together. This time it was the owners who wouldn’t go, locking out the players and delaying the start to the season, which complicated conditioning programs for many players, not just ones coming off injury like La Stella. It took until mid-May for La Stella to make it back to the Giants, which actually seems short considering he was 0-for-2 on Achilles less than a year ago, and maybe it should have been longer—it was by far La Stella’s worst season as a pro, which again makes sense because of the whole 0-for-Achilles thing. Originally it was reported La Stella only had surgery on his left Achilles, which would track as that’s also the leg with the troublesome hamstring from 2021, indicating a kinesthetic breakdown on that side, but it also makes this already wild stance even more wild:

That’s a significantly higher leg kick than he’s ever had, and if the goal is to create more torque and get more power, well great, but maybe not if it involves putting literally all your body weight on your injury-riddled left leg. Tommy!

The big leg kick giveth...

...And the big leg kick taketh.

Thankfully, the Big Leg Kick didn’t seem to be a consistent feature of La Stella’s 2022—maybe it was just something he was trying out, searching for answers in a lost season. Or maybe with two fully healthy Achilles tendons anchoring him, he’ll be able to make it all work together at last.

You’ve stuck with this very in-the-weeds article about Tommy La Stella for this long, so let’s have a little Confessions time (Yeah!). I took La Stella’s 40 in 40 profile because no one else on staff wanted it, but I’m glad I did. While I revere artists like Prince and Beyoncé and deeply respect their commitment to innovation, it is one thing to come to the canvas holding a 64-crayon Big Box versus taking the 8-pack of basic colors most of us are handed on the first day of kindergarten and finding new ways to make those colors sing. Give me a hustler like Carly Rae Jepsen, launching herself from one-off earworm territory into true pop queen. Give me the strivers like James Brown, who believe there’s no amount of talent that can’t be improved upon with hard work, while simultaneously refusing to be outworked by anyone, ever. And give me the hackers like La Stella, trying to break the code of his own body, of whom only so much is asked, but so much more is given.