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April 30, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Nate McLouth's Renaissance

by Jason Collette

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The start to Nate McLouth’s 2013 is one of the more surprising stories in the season’s opening month. The 31-year-old outfielder has a .351/.451/.486 triple-slash line and has already amassed eight stolen bases. That is a stark difference from a guy with a .251/.339/.423 career slash line who has never stolen more than 23 bases in any season. McLouth was a productive fantasy player from ages 25 to 27 before falling into a tailspin in 2010 that continued into 2012. Since landing in Baltimore, McLouth has hit .290/.373/.449 in 325 plate appearances, once again becoming a relevant fantasy option in all formats.

How has he gone from a spare part to a vital cog of a major-league offense?

In watching some film and asking around, the general consensus seems to be McLouth has shortened up his swing a bit. It cannot be something as simple as that, because a simple Google search on his name and swing gives many stories of his “new swing”:

3/25/11 - A piece by MLB.com’s Mark Bowman reviews how McLouth was being too passive at the plate and how the outfielder and his hitting mentor, Bill Peterson, were looking for him to be more aggressive in the coming season.

5/3/12 - A piece by Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette mentions how Clint Hurdle and hitting coach Gregg Ritchie worked with McLouth to get his hands to ball quicker in order to help him stop getting beat on pitches that should not have been getting the better of him.

9/18/12 - Steve Melewski of MASN wrote a piece in which McLouth credited the work he did with minor-league batting coach Denny Walling and minor-league hitting coordinator Mike Boulanger for helping him.

Over the course of 18 months, McLouth worked with five different people who each helped him make different changes to his swing to get him back to where he was in his prime. That rebuilding process has taken some time, but the end result since resurfacing with the Orioles has produced excellent results. The results have changed, but has the process?

These are McLouth’s results as an Oriole compared to his work from 2009 until his release by the Pirates in 2012:

SPLIT

PA

BA

OBP

SLG%

BB%

K%

Baltimore

325

.290

.373

.449

11.1%

15.7%

Others

1262

.228

.331

.371

11.9%

17.9%

His batted ball outcomes have been significantly better despite little change in his walk or strikeout rates. Using the same splits, let’s look at his plate appearance behaviors:
 

SPLIT

PA

SWING%

MISS%

CHASE%

STRIKE%

ZONE%

Baltimore

325

39.9%

14.8%

22.2%

61.1%

47.3%

Others

1262

39.8%

16.0%

22.1%

59.1%

46.8%

Once again, no dramatic differences here, as his frequencies are nearly the same across the board.  A review of his batted-ball data finds he is hitting more line drives and is hitting more balls to center field than he did during his poor years.

Using Russell Carleton’s sample-size study, we can validate McLouth’s strikeout rate, walk rate, and slugging percentage. Then again, his strikeout rate and walk rate were already validated by the fact that they were nearly identical to his previous 1,200 plate appearances. The slugging percentage validation should be tempered with something Carleton tweeted over the weekend:

The other facet of his change is his running game. McLouth already has eight steals this season, putting him on pace to double his previous career high of 23. According to baseball-reference.com, McLouth has been on first or second base with the next base unoccupied 45 times this season and has attempted nine stolen bases.  That 20 percent rate is a significant increase from the 13 percent rate (12 of 91) he had last season with the Orioles and even higher than single-digit-rate McLouth had during his 23-steal season.

McLouth currently has half of Baltimore’s 16 team stolen bases and nine of the 19 attempts the team has made in 2013. Manager Buck Showalter has had the Orioles attempt to steal the next unoccupied base five percent of the time this season, which is slightly above the league average. He has done a good job of picking the right moments and players to do that with, as Baltimore’s 84 percent success rate is currently the fourth best in baseball.

The jury is still out on whether the results McLouth is currently producing at the plate are sustainable, but his output on the base paths appears to be very real. Even if his batting average tapers off, his strong walk rate will have him on first base often, and his manager has so far given him the opportunity to run. That confluence of factors should allow him to become a surprising source of steals in 2013.

Jason Collette is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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