17 February 2014

Can David Lough Be a Cheap Version of Nate McLouth?

In parts of two seasons with the Orioles, Nate McLouth was a helpful player (worth a total of 3.7 fWAR/2.6 rWAR). In 829 plate appearances, he batted .261/.333/.409 (unsurprisingly performing better against right-handed pitching). He also played average defense in left field, mostly making routine plays but rarely spectacular ones, and was very good on the basepaths (and was probably the O's best individual baserunner). But McLouth is gone, and in steps David Lough, who the Orioles acquired from the Royals for Danny Valencia. Considering the Orioles have refused to make any expensive or bold free agent signings, Lough will likely have to play an important role in an outfield that is thin after Adam Jones and Nick Markakis.

Nate McLouth. Photo via Keith Allison.
McLouth signed a two-year, $10.75 million deal with the Nationals back in December. That deal includes a 2016 club option for $6.5 million. Obviously, the O's were not willing to pay that kind of money for McLouth's services, and it seems apparent that Lough was targeted to bring some of those McLouth-like qualities, for less money. Lough, 28, is younger and cheaper than McLouth. He is still under team control for several more seasons and won't become a free agent until after 2017.

When the O's signed McLouth in June 2012 after he was released by the Pirates, there was no expectation that he'd add anything to the club. Even when he started hitting, most thought he'd come back down to earth by the time the season ended. (I certainly did.) But he didn't, and he managed to put together a productive 2013 season as well. The resurgence of McLouth was real -- and greatly needed. The Nationals are expecting that production to continue.

McLouth was an inexpensive signing for the O's in 2012, and it paid off. Like many things during the 2012 season, it just worked. The cost to bring in Lough wasn't quite that low (Valencia is greater than nothing), but how does he compare to McLouth? McLouth had been an effective player earlier in his career; Lough, though, has only received 400 plate appearances in parts of 2012 and 2013 with the Royals. In that time, his batting line is .278/.308/.396. For his career, McLouth has a career line of .260/.345/.441 (2,683 PAs) vs. right-handed pitching, but against lefties, he struggles mightily: .221/.301/.347 (892 PAs). In Lough's limited time in the majors, he has fared differently than McLouth and has performed about the same against righties (.277/.307/.393 (323 PAs)) and lefties (.282/.312/.408 (77 PAs)). Again, don't forget to note the sample size difference. Maybe a platoon issue will surface for the left-handed Lough, or maybe it won't. It will be interesting if his wOBA stays around .300 against both right- and left-handed pitching, but the average major league batter had a wOBA of .314 in 2013. So he may just be an average major league hitter.

2012 26 KCR 20 65 2 1 0 1 4 .237 .292 .305
2013 27 KCR 96 335 17 4 5 5 10 .286 .311 .413
2 Yrs 116 400 19 5 5 6 14 .278 .308 .396
162 Game Avg. 162 559 27 7 7 8 20 .278 .308 .396
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/16/2014.

Lough's offensive skills may be limited, but it is easier to overlook what he does at the plate because of his skills in the outfield. He is sometimes described as a fantastic defensive outfielder (even occasionally for all three outfield positions). And if he's going to be as close to as valuable as McLouth was for the Orioles, he'll have to excel defensively.

Advanced Stats

Because Lough only appeared in 20 games in 2012 and 96 games in 2013, fans haven't been able to see much of him. So one way to try to get a handle on his defensive capabilities is to look at some of his
advanced defensive metrics (obvious small sample size qualifier). In 835.2 total outfield innings, Lough has a UZR of 16.7 and a +15 DRS. Broken down further:

Right field (621.2 innings): 10.5 UZR, +10 DRS
Center field (124 innings): 2.0 UZR, -1 DRS
Left field (90 innings): 4.2 UZR, +6 DRS

David Lough. Photo via Minda Haas.
Right field appears to be Lough's best defensive position, but again, he hasn't played nearly as many innings in center and left, and it's not like he's played even a full year's worth of games in right field, either. Markakis will be the O's right fielder in 2014, barring injury, so Lough will be fighting for playing time in left field.

Writers' Thoughts

Some of the most interesting things about Lough and his defense have been written by Royals fans/sites. Here's Baseball Prospectus co-founder and Royals fan Rany Jazayerli, writing for Grantland last August:
"[Lough's] success is almost certainly unsustainable because of his poor plate discipline (just eight walks in 68 games), because his incredible defensive numbers will probably regress a little, and mostly because he’s 27 years old. Unless you have a valid excuse, like playing in Japan (Ichiro Suzuki) or Cuba (Yoenis Cespedes was 26), a hitter who doesn’t stick in the majors until he’s 27 is probably never going to improve on his rookie season. (Myers, by comparison, is 22.) Lough is likely to have a long career as a fourth outfielder, but he might never have a season as good as this one."
So that's not overly optimistic, though Jazayerli does mention that Lough has "outstanding first-step quickness and excellent instincts."

Back in June, Clint Hulsey at Pine Tar Press had an intriguing post on Lough mainly focusing on his hitting skills, but he also briefly commented on his defense. He noted that based on Lough's limited major league experience and what he had accomplished in the minors, that "he seems like a guy that can handle centerfield if you need him to, but really excels at the corner outfield."

Neil Weinberg at Beyond the Box Score threw some praise Lough's way when discussing his defense:
"Certainly we shouldn't think about him as a +30 defender in RF based on 830 innings of data, but combining the initial data with good old fashioned visual scouting and you feel plenty comfortable calling him an excellent defender in a corner. He could probably even play an average centerfield without much issue. Lough simply has tremendous range and will be a huge asset in the Orioles outfield just like he was in the Royals outfield in 2013. While Gold Glove voters love Adam Jones, the advanced numbers tend to rate him poorly. Having David Lough next to him could be a big help."
And Michael Engel at Royals blog Kings of Kauffman wasn't quite as enthusiastic: "Lough’s good enough to hold his own out there, but he’s still prone to misplays and over a longer term, the defensive numbers probably don’t hold up as well."

Overall, those opinions on Lough's defense are mostly positive, though fans might be hyping up his defense a bit too much. But he is very good, and that's valuable.


As you'd expect, Lough has certainly made his share of phenomenal defensive plays. Here's a game-saving catch from July where he was able to showcase that quick first step:

He took an interesting route to the ball here but was able to adjust and make a difficult catch:

Here, Lough runs down a ball in the right-center gap:

And here's a solid diving grab down the left field line. Along with a strong first step and pretty good range, he adds a decent arm. Here's one good throw, and here's another:

Sure, he's not Yasiel Puig or anything, but he has a better arm than McLouth. Plus, he'll be playing left field, so he won't need as strong of an arm as he would in right or center. If he keeps running down balls that many other outfielders wouldn't, he doesn't need to have a cannon for an arm.

Still, he will make mistakes. Henry Urrutia's lone extra-base hit in the majors (a triple) last season was the result of a misplay by Lough. Some outfielders with a slower first step may not have even attempted a dive on that Urrutia hit, but the good far outweighs the bad with Lough's defense.


Lough and McLouth have some similarities. They're the same size (5'11, 180 pounds), they're both left handed, and they are fast. But McLouth is better with the bat, and Lough is better in the field. Ideally, they are suited for a fourth outfielder type role, which is what McLouth will be doing in Washington. But the O's needed McLouth to serve as their third outfielder the last couple seasons, and they would be thrilled if they could get similar production from Lough.

Considering Lough will likely be battling for playing time in left field with the likes of Steve Pearce and Nolan Reimold (and maybe a couple others), he should receive plenty of opportunities to play regularly. And to answer the question in the headline: Yes, he can be, but he'll need to be extremely productive defensively. Bring on the web gems.

Stats via FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.


Chito Martinez said...

Both the Lough trade and their commitment to Flaherty at 2B seem to indicate the O's are relying heavily on good defensive metrics, albeit with small sample sizes. The degree to which those numbers regress will have big implications on how this season turns out.

Philip said...

I was hoping the Orioles would sign David Murphy, a terrific defensive LF who was solid offensively until an awful '13.
Cost aside, is Murphy considerably better than Lough?

Matt Kremnitzer said...

If the O's were looking to spend around the same money David Murphy got, they probably would have just re-signed Nate McLouth, or maybe tried harder to do so. Murphy doesn't seem like quite as good of an outfielder as David Lough, but he's also a better hitter. But he's also a few years older and costs more, plus his bad 2013 season is at least somewhat worrisome. Murphy is probably the better player because of his ability to hit, but that might also depend on how good of an outfielder Lough actually is.