25 October 2012

Nate McLouth: Should He Stay or Should He Go?

The 2012 Baltimore Orioles were composed of players from a wide variety of backgrounds and successes. One of the more interesting cases on the team was Nate McLouth. Nate seemed destined for success a few years back as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a hard-nosed young player on a team struggling to build an identity, Nate was quickly anointed a fan-favorite after a break out season in 2008 which gave the fan base a real glimmer of hope.

After filling a 4th OF type role with the team in 2006 and 2007, McLouth was promoted to starting CF in 2008, mostly because the Pirates have constantly traded away players that developed some kind of trade value in hopes of bringing multiple players back in return to build a team for the future. Nate responded to this opportunity by hitting .276/.356/.497 while stealing 23 bases, playing gold glove defense, and drawing 65 walks. This was an amazing season which had McLouth labeled as a star in the making at 26 years old. Pittsburgh responded by signing him to a three year contract extension at a team friendly value of $15.75m, which is a steal for the kind of production he provided in 2008. The team then further rewarded him by continuing their "major league farm team" ways and traded him to the Atlanta Braves the following season for a package including Charlie Morton and Gorkys Hernandez, two of Atlanta's top 10 prospects.

The trade seemed to hurt McLouth personally as he really enjoyed the city and team in PIT and was blindsided after just agreeing to an extension with the team. That was followed by two injury plagued seasons in which he sustained a concussion in a collision with Jason Heyward in the OF, an oblique injury that led to a DL stint, and a sports hernia that robbed him of more than half a season of baseball. The Braves then declined his option making him a free agent, so he tried to go back home again and signed a 1-year deal with PIT. The reunion wasn't the same however as the team and environment was far different than when he left and he never seemed to get comfortable in his second go around with the team. After he was DFA'd by the Pirates, the Orioles signed him to a minor league deal and sent him to AAA, later recalling him in August, aligning the call up of Machado, these two moves drastically altered the team and gave them the push they needed to get to the playoffs.

Third base and left field were black holes for the Orioles for the first part of the 2012 season, with errors and lack of production haunting the team after Mark Reynolds/Wilson Betemit were ineffective at 3rd and Nolan Reimold went down for the season after a promising start in LF. As Machado solidified 3rd base and improved the defense in the infield, McLouth had the same effect on the OF. Seemingly comfortable playing in Baltimore, as showed by his slash line in Camden Yards of .314/.395/.505, Nate responded to the challenge, adding great defense and much needed speed to the lineup, filling two of the major holes this team just couldn't seem to overcome in 2012. After Nick Markakis ascended to the lead-off role and excelled, this team looked to have finally solved one of the missing pieces of the playoff puzzle, then down the stretch against the Yankees, he had a bone broken in his hand and was out for the season, placing doubt on the team's chances again. McLouth was inserted into the leadoff role and responded with a .797 OPS with 6 steals and 5 home runs in that period, helping to fill the gap Markakis left and helping the Orioles to secure the playoff bid down the stretch.

For his career, Nate has hit RHP to a tune of a .793 OPS and LHP to a .649 OPS which opens the door for a 4th OF to get some at-bats, and on a team that also features all the potential that lies in Reimold, who just can't stay healthy, finding a place to get him some at bats could be key. With Markakis back in 2013 in RF and leading off, Jones entrenched in CF, and McLouth showing not only that he can provide great defense in LF, but can play all 3 OF positions if someone needs a day off, he increases his appeal.

The naysayers will point to his stint in Atlanta and the small sample size of success he had in Baltimore, however, his entire stay in Atlanta was marred by nagging injuries that made it impossible to really get his feet wet there playing in only 250 games out of about 410 possible. That all-star player potential is still in there somewhere, and his time in BAL showed that. Nate said in an interview with Dan Connolly that he really liked Baltimore and felt comfortable here, his numbers sure seem to show that, and with a hole in left field, the team will be hard pressed to find speed, defense, offense, flexibility and a desire to play in Baltimore that is also cost effective as Nate should be. You may see a few other teams willing to take a gamble on Nate being back and try to jump in the bidding, but there is a mutual interest from both parties, and for the first time in a long time, we can say that Baltimore offers the chance to play for a contender.

 For a team that has all the potential in the world in Reimold, but can't rely on him to be healthy, Nate would be a great compliment considering the tools that he brings to the team. Having three former gold glove winners in your outfield is a great way to build a championship team, especially when you balance speed, defense and power like few teams can boast, and the team-friendly contract that comes with McLouth would allow us to keep the prospects we have in case we need them to make another deal, and keeps our payroll flexible in case the opportunity arises to add to secure extensions with our young core, or to add a marquis player to the team later.


Jon Shepherd said...

Jeremy, can you elaborate on his defensive ability with a scouting perspective because I have been in the opinion that he simply is not a fit in centerfield and that the gold glove was not deserved. In the podcast that will come out maybe tomorrow...both Daniel and I think McLouth should be allowed to leave for a starting position elsewhere.

Philip said...

How can you replace what Nate provided?
No one else ran at all, and his defense was outstanding
How do you replace it? And what would that replacement cost ?
Keep him or at worst, sign and trade.
But with such a lean FA class, it makes no sense at all to let a good glove, the only base stealer on the team, and the only playoff bat depart.

Jon Shepherd said...

I think it is presumptuous to expect that Nate McLouth can replace Nate McLouth. What was likely is not what is.

Also...sign and trades are really applicable in other sports.

Philip said...

Jon, with all due respect, you spent the bulk of the season insisting that the Orioles weren't as good as their record because the stats said they should have 10-12 fewer wins.
In orher words you were insisting that stats were more significant than actual results on the field.
Now you're saying Nate won't be good next year, instead of granting that he may very well be at least good enough to warrant remaining.
Attitude, environment, and emotional comfort level are not quantifiable, but are nonetheless valid components of a player's success.
Because Nate HAS been Nate, he CAN be Nate, and there's no reason to think that possibility is preposterous.
I am a novice at all this, but as a fan, I am really surprised that you so adamantly think otherwise.

Jon Shepherd said...

And scouts insisted that the Orioles were not good. So how do you explain away that?

Simply put, my days of solely considering statistics ended about five or so years ago as I have begun understanding scouting.

Based on scouting and historical evidence, it seems far more likely that the Orioles accomplished much through some fortunate circumstances that have never been sustainable over more than one season.

Simply put, it is not merely a scout thing...and being wrong for 162 games is not exactly the same as being wrong for 324. This is especially true when people refer to McLouth as a great defensive player or a good hitter. He is neither of those things whether you are qualitative or quantitative minded.

As much as I would like to see McLouth as a solution, I just simply haven't been told otherwise than that I need to believe in McLouth's heart and feelings. I think people often use intangibles to explain away a curious series of events.

Jon Shepherd said...

OK...my brief look at McLouth.
Overall - high effort guy who is susceptible to injury. Injury probability increasing with age.
Hitting - avg to above average bat for CF; below average to avg bat for LF. 10-15 HR power with average on base skills.
Defense - well below average range prevents long term play in centerfield. Arm plays poorly at all positions.

I think McLouth is fine as a 4th outfielder on a one year, 2MM deal or so, but no big money and no promises. The real fear is the Nate McLouth is to the 2012 Orioles as Jose Vidro was to the 2007 Mariners. Neither player should be targeted as a solution for a starter's position.

Matt P said...

If he wants a 1 yr and 2 to 4 million, then it makes sense. If he wants 2 years and 13 million, then it makes sense to send him elsewhere. My understanding is that similar players get 1 yr and 2to 4 million.

The question should not be whether Nate McLouth can replace Nate McLouth. As an Oriole in 2012, he was on pace for a 3.9 to 4 WAR season -- about what he did in 2008 and 2009. Given the contract that he'll get though, he'll be a good signing even if he's worth 1 WAR. Given the talent we have in the organization... well it's complicated. Davis probably is better... but at the moment he's our DH. He can't play two positions. Reimold is probably better... but he can't stay healthy. McLouth probably is an upgrade at minimum over Hoes or Avery and thus an upgrade.

Look, we saw what happened when we went with Reimold last year. He got hurt (as usual) and we needed to rely on people like Endy Chavez and Xavier Avery. Those two guys hit about as well as your average pitcher. Is that a better option?

Jon Shepherd said...

Matt - I think you are right. The issue is largely what do the Orioles have to promise to McLouth to resign him. If he has to be given the left field assignment, then that can hog tie the team with a player who has had injury issues, plays all out, and is not a high level bat. He is someone you ride when he has his mechanics in gear. He is not someone you ride through the bad times.

Jeremy Strain said...

I'll get a much more developed answer in a little while when I get back to my computer but I think some of this could be put to bed with the last line of my post that I ultimately dropped. Nate is a great option on a one to two year deal for $2-4m but after that level is when you really have to think more. I just didn't want to go throwing numbers around since the market sets value.

Jeremy Strain said...

Ok, now that I've got a real computer and not just my phone...

From the defensive side of things, he doesn't have a good arm at all, no doubt there, but his range isn't as bad as his reputation says. It's probably not ideal for a starter in CF, he doesn't get a great first step, but he's got good enough speed to catch back up to a lot of them. For LF he's got good enough range to do much better than other players we have stuck out there before, and he's got good hands, he makes the plays he can get to. I think the GG was partially a result of the "sportcenter generation" where players get more reputation for making spectacular highlight film plays, where a better fielder may make a lot of those catches routinely (see: Hunter, Torii).

Nate is a player in the category like Ryan Ludwick, where they get written off as being big heart players or grinders and never seen as a good multi-year investment, but there is a lot of value in those types of players.

As a regular player, he's had 3 "healthy" seasons, two marred by injuries, and 1 this season as he had to earn the trust of a ML team to get another chance. It's not fair to call him an "injury risk" or label him as a guy that can't stay healthy, look at Markakis, are you going to say the same about him? Nate had one season with a bad injury that took half a season and another season with a concussion and a nagging injury afterwards. It happens, he's far from JD Drew status.

His numbers in his stint with the O's lined up pretty closely to the numbers he put up in his couple healthy seasons, so yeah, it's pretty easy for me to say that that is the kind of production I expect out of him. I think he is more of a .250 18-22 HR 20-30SB guy in a full season as a starter.

This is exactly the kind of player you need to fill a lineup when you aren't the Yankees, you need some lower cost productive players with flexibility, and that's exactly what Nate brings. If the cost isn't too high (and I don't think it will be) he is a great player to keep.

Dustin said...

I feel like we're trying to compare McLouth next year to McLouth of this year. While defensively I think that is a fair comparison, wouldn't the offensive comparison be more between McLouth of next year to Andino/Machado/Flaherty of last year? What I'm asking here is this: Won't McLouth need to basically improve on the 7/8/9 hole in the order? Because that's where he's going to be be assuming that Markakis returns to the leadoff.

Maybe he'd end up in the 2 hole? Hardy wasn't exactly lighting the world on fire from that spot last year, and McLouth seemed capable this year of being the sort of guy that 2 spots are good for, right? I am admittedly unable to view McLouth in a unbiased way.

Jon Shepherd said...

Jeremy, if he is that kind of guy then you are saying he will be worth about 12-15MM for one season.

Jeremy Strain said...

I don't like to get into the putting numbers on predictive performance but yeah I believe pretty strongly in Nate. Being able to replicate those numbers he had in his dream season is within him. I don't think that 50 games is too small of a sample size for that and if you extrapolate his 2012 it was right in line with that 2008-09 stretch. I'm a believer...but I wouldn't solely depend on him either. Between him, Reimold and Avery/Hoes I think LF should be fine.

philip Taggart said...

It is unfair to assume that Nate will somehow revert to the injured non-producer that he was with Atlanta, instead of the GG player with offense and speed that he was in Pittsburg, especially since his '12 production essentially duplicates his Pittsburgh production.

One must assume the most recent production is the most pertinent. Nate is more likely to duplicate his '12 production next year than he is to revert back to his Atlanta years, especially because injuries skewed those results pretty severely.

Yes the scouts were down on the Orioles. So what? Scouts work with concrete past results to make future predictions.
Sometimes, the intangibles, those unquantifiable "random factors" mess with things.
Lots of things are more important than a scout's prediction

I want Nate to return because
1) If he remains within 80%+/- of his '12 production, he cannot be easily or inexpensively replaced. He offers speed, offense, and defense.
As I said, the FA class is lean and pricey.

2) Nate will be cheap, and he knows that he'd get the best deal from the orioles. He won't insist on an unreasonable amount of money

3)He wants to be here. He contributed to the Magic, and there's no reason that he won't be a solid producer next year.

4) He was thrust into a leading role when Markakis went down, and did well. Perhaps he couldn't do the same over a whole season, but next season, in a platoon system, or as a backup, he'd be under less pressure. Or, for instance, if Reynolds leaves, Nate could DH and Davis could play !b. Not the best solution, but workable.

Yeah bring him back if he can be had resonably. He is an asset in all dimensions. This is a no-brainer.
"Back to you in the studio, bob"

Philip said...

What is your bias and why? Care to share?

Matt P said...

Just looking at his value via fangraphs, a good bit of it is due to his baserunning/stolen bases.

He stole 12 bases on 13 attempts (92.3%) success. In the playoffs, he was 3 for 4. The point is that if he returns to this club, he will have the green light. That could be good for his value because he may just steal 40 bases.

If you ask me his speed has been fairly consistent. Seems his fielding is consistently average in LF. If he has to play CF then you're in trouble, but...

As for his hitting, he's always done a good job walking and had a decent BB/K (except for 2012 with the Pirates). He's never had a good BABIP but it's been consistent (except for 2011 with the Braves when it tanked). The major question about him offensively is whether he'll hit for power again. But even if he can't, he should be able to put up an OBP at least in the .330 range. That's not a bad worst case scenario.

If you tell me that he gets 600 PAs (playing time), has slightly below average fielding, has above average base running and plays LF, then I'm going to tell you that he's a 1.7 WAR player provided he hits league average. Probably means he's worth between 1.5 to 2.5 WAR.

I think .250/.330/.400 is reasonable to hope for and therefore being a 2 WAR guy makes sense. But even if he's a .220/.330/.350 guy, at four million it's not a disaster.

Jon Shepherd said...

What is my bias? I have striven hard over the past 5 years to eliminate bias in my analysis. I work every day to be more and more accurate in my analysis.

Daniel Moroz said...

I'm a little confused about how well people think McLouth played in 2012. Sure he hit well for the Orioles, but his seasonal line was .241/.314/.380. We're to assume he'll hit substantially better than that next year... why?

Jon Shepherd said...

If you don't count his poor performances, then he did quite well.

Jeremy Strain said...

I thought he meant my bias?

Dan- It's not like he hit the same in BAL as he did in PIT. Two different cities, teams, coaching staffs, and playing roles. He was terrible there, but his numbers in BAL were exactly in line with his healthy season results. Not a coincidence for me. Seems like a player that needs to feel comfortable with a coach and environment to succeed, MLB is loaded with them. The only years he hit worse than what his numbers looked like in BAL were 2 injury loaded years, and those injuries were the types that affect performance afterwards as well.

This is a case of a player having too much success too fast, which naturally leads to people wanting him to prove it over a couple seasons before they buy into him. Then he is traded right after his breakout (which RARELY happens) and has two injury plagued years so people naturally write off his good year (2 years) as a fluke.

Philip said...

I meant Dustin's bias. Thought I replied to him. Wasn't accusing anyone of bias just asking about the source of Dustin's.

Jeremy Strain said...

Gotcha. Just the problem with not having nested replies, it's hard to keep track when there is a long conversation like this one :)

Jon Shepherd said...

I think a major problem with the change of scenery defense is how often it does not work. I feel very uncomfortable to have such a large part of an argument to be a cliche that has a very uneven track record and works against current majority thought about mental conditioning in baseball...plus, McLouth has faced a lot of failure in his career (even Mike Trout has).

It is one of the reasons why I am hoping to steer the conversation about what McLouth actually does to make you think he can actually play well. To me, it sounds (probably unfairly)...he is not a good defender, at best has marginal offense for a corner outfield slot, and do not pay attention to when he did incredibly poorly because he felt bad about himself and got injured. That is probably an unfair characterization, but that is how it sounds to me...so I hope I can be straightened out on the matter or understand more cleanly what McLouth can actually do.

I see as a LF, average/below average fielder (bad arm, ok range), below average hitter (gap power, low contact, average walk), above average runner (smart runner makes up for speed). Basically a low fringe corner outfielder aka 4th outfielder.

Jeremy Strain said...

No one ever wants to get into a conversation when it comes to intangible things like a player's comfort level or the mental side of the game, but these are the things that make the unexplainable happen all the time (like the entire 2012 Orioles season). Don't blame you one bit there. So we can avoid it, but I promise you that they aren't talked about much since you can't quantify them, but they are real concerns. Baseball is more mental than any other professional sport.

Do disagree on some of your assessment though, you're right on the arm strength, the range is pretty decent for a LF though if you watch how much ground he effectively covers. (They need a way to track how much actual ground players cover to show range) His power though is better than you are giving him credit for though. He's got decent pop, and it's pretty good for LF. Like you said though, his shortcomings are the low average, and arm strength. His BB rates aren't bad (pretty good compared to the rest of this team), he will give you somewhere in the ballpark of a .340-.350 OBP which would be near the top of this team. Basically he's Markakis minus about 40-50 points in avg. with a much weaker arm.

I don't know what you are looking for in a LF but his BAL numbers (if he qualified) would put him as the 7th best LF in baseball for OBP. I'm fairly certain that given a starting job, looking at the LF stats for 2012, that Nate would be one of the top 10 in MLB fairly easily. To do that for each category he would need to hit .256 22 HR 50 BB and a .318 OBP. Where LF is pretty top heavy is OPS where it would take a .797 OPS to hit top 10, but I think a .775+ OPS is easy to expect of him.

For a couple million dollars, I think it's a completely worthwhile gamble. It comes down to he's got 6 years of regular MLB time, 3.5 of them were good to great, and 2.5 of them were not. I can show injuries that explain most of 2 of those years, and you have 34 games last season to say he's not good. I've also got 55 games last year that says he is. He's a player that is going to leave people split one way or the other, but who else are you going to replace him with?