05 August 2013

Should the Orioles Extend the New Nate McLouth?

gif by Steph Diorio / video: http://youtu.be/XMzCNO2wlWM
Last year, Jeremy Strain wrote an article for the Depot that generated a great deal of discussion between him, myself, Daniel Moroz, and the passengers (yes, lets see how well this term I just made up for followers of the Depot sticks...get it, Depot, trains, passengers, nevermind).  To paraphrase, Jeremy thought that Nate McLouth's performance for the Orioles last season in 55 games (268/342/435) was more indicative of his future performance due to him being fully healthy and surmising that he was unhappy to be in Atlanta.  I and, largely, Daniel, countered that it would be unfair to ignore his poor performances in Atlanta and Pittsburgh in predicting the future because there was nothing we could point toward to show that his talent level had increased.  One of the many ideas the passengers put forward was that the real question was how do we resolve left field when the team is unlikely to pay much for an outfielder to which I thought Nate Schierholtz would have been a solid replacement.

Anyway, I think how things settled as the offseason dragged on actually wound up where we thought it was appropriate (except with Schierholtz signing with the Cubs for 2.25 MM and still under arbitration).  The Orioles dragged their heels on Nate McLouth with no one else willing to make much of a play on him.  With trade options dwindling and asking prices undesirable, the team decided to resign him for 2 MM with some understanding expressed to him that the left field position would be up for grabs against Nolan Reimold, Ryan Flaherty, L.J. Hoes, and whoever else they could find (i.e., Steve Pearce, Chris Dickerson, Conor Jackson).  The move was largely interpreted as uninspiring and signified the difficulty the front office had in finding a big bat, which is what they were trying to acquire.

What has happened though was largely unseen.  McLouth has not produced the .250 BA/20HR/25 SB guy Jeremy predicted.  He has actually surpassed that average and matched the stolen bases, but likely will not meet that power amount.  I don't really like using those numbers to measure a player because they are some of the weaker metrics for correlations to actual performance.  Daniel, in a rebuttal post, expressed some of the numbers that mean more to me and largely to predictive approaches.  To try to put them on equal footing...I think under Jeremy's approach the split would be something like 250/330/450 while I saw something more like 250/330/400 with a large number of games being sat out due to left handed starting pitching with which he has historically failed at hitting (111 wRC+ vs RHP, 76 wRC+ vs LHP).

So what has happened?

Nate McLouth Playing for Baltimore
2012 30 236 .268 .342 .435 111 1.0
2013 31 413 .287 .355 .425 113 2.4
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/3/2013.

What has impressed me most about Nate McLouth's season is that he is not the player in the same vein as what he was doing earlier in his career and what is more similar to what Jeremy was projecting (mind you, Jeremy's projection is much closer to reality than mine or Daniel's so don't take that as a pile on).  Where he has found success has been his approach at the plate, which is the same approach he seems to have taken last year.  The approach is one where he covers more of the plate and produces solid line drives as opposed to deep fly balls.  He has cut down his fly ball percentage from about the mid to upper 40% range to upper 30% this year.  That massive change is reflected in his home run ability.  Simply put, a true line drive will result in a homerun only one percent of the time, so by reducing fly balls you should see a great reduction in home runs.  He has gone from someone who would hit a home run every 25 at bats in Pittsburgh to someone who hits one every 50 at bats in Baltimore.  Those fly balls have largely been translated into line drives.  His line drives are sitting at 26.5% whereas they were in the mid teens during his prolific Pittsburgh days. 

I also think a great deal of his success has been his ability to cover more of the plate with his new approach, particularly against southpaws.  In the past, McLouth's susceptibility to left handed pitching made him more suited for being a platoon outfielder and someone who would need a pinch hitter late in games if the opposing manager would send in a left handed pitcher to face him.  This was also problematic because what manager would pinch hit an All Star centerfielder late in the game?  Not many.

Using the data I have (from 2009 to the first half of 2012), McLouth would swing and miss against lefties 17.7% of the time.  In 2013 (up to August 3rd), that number is 14.8%, a decrease of 16%. He is swinging about 43% of the time, which is an increase from 41%.  In other words, he is swinging more and getting more contact from the left side.  Increasing that coverage has turned him into a full time player.

McLouth's Splits
vs RHP Career 10.7 16.3 .262 .348 .445 111
vs RHP 2013 9.3 11.5 .298 .364 .429 118
vs LHP Career 7.2 18.1 .226 .305 .353 78
vs LHP 2013 6.6 15.4 .250 .318 .413 101
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/3/2013 with BB%, SO%, and wRC+ taken from Fangraphs.

McLouth still walks a decent amount of the time even though he has dropped slightly below average (but not to a significant degree with respect to the league).  However, that is buttressed by his increased batting average through increased meaningful contact.  That increase in getting on base more than makes up for the decrease in isolated power; highest in 2008 with a .221 mark, it now resides at .138.  That decrease in power might be concerning to you.  However it should be noted that if McLouth continues on his current pace that his fWAR and bWAR should be 3.2 and 3.5, respectively.  His career high marks for those two are 3.5 and 2.5, respectively.  That should impart two things: (1) Nate McLouth is having a career year and (2) getting on base, otherwise known as not getting out, is far more important than hitting for power.

In the end, I think all of us evaluating McLouth missed a major thing: he is no longer Nate McLouth.  He is the New Nate McLouth.  Jeremy suspected that a return to health would bring back his Pittsburgh halcyon days.  Daniel and I thought that it was presumptuous to ignore poor performances.  What we shared in our misjudgement was being able to identify what exactly it was that he was doing differently to enjoy success in the latter half of 2012.  This apparently was missed by all of baseball as his performance should have been worth much more than 2 MM in the open market.  He should have gotten a contract similar to what Melky Cabrera had received.

In the end, it is nice to be wrong when being wrong means things are right between the lines at Camden Yards.  However, how do the events from this season impart upon my thoughts on extending Nate McLouth?  Not much really.  I would suggest that a fair open market price on McLouth this offseason would be about 2 years and 16 MM, which is what Melky Cabrera signed when he agreed to play for the Blue Jays.  I assume that by the end of the year, McLouth will have produced about 4 bWAR over a little less than a year and a half in Baltimore.  If you project that over a full season, then McLouth would be expected to be worth about 3 bWAR a year or about 15MM.  Injury likelihood probably drops it down to about 10MM a year, which then probably get dropped further due to an uneven history and lack of power.

At a contract similar to Cabrera's, I feel uneasy inking McLouth.  Thirty one year old enjoying career seasons is not exactly the kind of commodity I like getting behind.  I think McLouth's skills play for a fringe first division team, but only if he is not one of the major offensive players you are relying on.  In other words, he is a complementary piece and I would hesitate making such a player the third or fourth highest paid player on the team.  Of course, if McLouth is not lining up in left field, who is?

With L.J. Hoes now an Astro and Nolan Reimold losing another year, internal options appear scarce.  The free agent market for the 2014 season has a few outfielders that are interesting enough to consider trying to shift them over to left field.  Those would be Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, and Hunter Pence.  At this moment, it appears all three of them will be bid on hard by their current teams.  They also will probably earn considerably more than McLouth.  They would be players who would be leaned on hard for their offensive acumen.  Second tier players would include Mike Morse, David Murphy, Ryan Raburn, Coco Crisp (who is an older version of what Nate McLouth currently is), Marlon Byrd, Corey Hart, and Nate McLouth.

Perhaps Nate McLouth is the best choice here.


Triple R said...


Jon Shepherd said...

Cannot field at all. Does not hit well. He might be able to learn to be a league average hitter. An emphasis on might. His fielding will always be atrocious.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Lew Ford? Just kidding. Great write-up.

Triple R said...

Murphy is an intriguing one to me--obviously he's having a miserable year, but he's a proven starting-caliber player, a solid defender, and he's been ridiculously unlucky this year--his BABIP is .228 despite a lowered K% and batted-ball rates that are basically the same as his career rates. I'd sign him and McLouth and have a contest in spring training.

Triple R said...

Now that I look up Murphy's splits, I can see that he has a pretty heavy platoon split in the same direction as McLouth (i.e. much better against righties); they're pretty similar players, and I'd still like Murphy as a buy-low candidate.