02 May 2013

Patiently Aggressive: Nate McLouth's Offensive Resurgence

On a team full of hot starts, Orioles outfielder Nate McLouth's sizzling April is probably the most surprising and unexpected. Currently hitting with a slash line of .346/.452/.513, good for a 164 wRC+ and 161 OPS+, ranking 2nd in both of those categories on the Orioles, behind only Chris Davis, McLouth is on pace for a career year in many offensive categories. It wasn't so long ago that McLouth's career had stalled, derailed by poor hitting in stops with Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Signed last year by Baltimore to a minor league deal, he started his 2012 season with AAA Norfolk, but worked his way to the bigs, eventually playing in 55 games for the Orioles and giving them a slash line of .268/.342/.435 with 1.2 WAR and 111 wRC+ in return.

McLouth has taken advantage of the opportunities and offensive resurgence of last season and has built upon those good fortunes in 2013. Not only is McLouth showing a sweet stroke from the left side, he is also taking advantage of getting on base and becoming more aggressive on the base paths, as his team leading 8 stolen bases (2nd in the MLB overall) can attest. Yet, it is what McLouth is doing with bat more so than what he's doing with his legs that is turning heads in the AL and providing Baltimore with a potent leadoff hitter for an offense that touts an impressive amount of power and run driving ability in the form of Davis, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Nick Markakis.

So what seems to be the secret to McLouth's big start? What is propelling him into these uncharted offensive waters? While there are many opinions and suggestions as to what mechanical changes are possibly at the root of McLouth's success, it might not be a mechanical change so much as a philosophical one that is helping McLouth get off to his hot start.

With the help of Fangraphs, let's look at some PITCHf/x data on McLouth, both for his career and thus far in 2013:

What is striking about McLouth's 2013 start is his balanced hitting approach. Not only is he doing a better job of not swinging at balls outside of the strike zone (O-Swing%), he is also being more selective with what he swings at, as his career low Swing% of 37 percent attest. While practicing a more patient approach, he is also displaying a controlled aggressiveness with pitches in the strike zone, as judged by his Z-Contact% rate, a career best 93.3 percent thus far in 2013. In general, if it's a strike, McLouth is making good contact and putting the ball in play.

How does that make his other hitting rates look?

As seen by this table, McLouth's controlled but aggressive hitting approach is allowing him to enjoy career bests in walk (16 percent) and strikeout (9.6 percent) rates in 2013. Also of note is his ridiculously good BABIP rate – currently at a most likely unsustainable .373, nearly 100 points higher than his career average. While not shown in this table, McLouth's line drive rate for 2013 is at 24.6 percent, a roughly 6 percent jump from his career average of 18.5 percent.

Though many of his hitting rates are probably unsustainable, even if McLouth starts to cool off and regresses back towards to his career slash line of .251/.339/.424, the fact that he has become a more patient hitter and more aggressive with pitches in the strike zone bodes well for him to remain a productive leadoff hitter. Add to this his ability to get on base via the walk and steal a base, along with pitchers throwing him pitches in the strike zone at the highest rate he's seen in his career, McLouth's overall productivity and run scoring ability should remain regression-proof.

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