Entering the season, expectations were high for the Atlanta Braves. After four consecutive seasons sans playoff baseball, the team appeared to have built a legitimate contender capable of dethroning the incumbent division champion Phillies. The rotation was lauded all throughout the offseason despite Javier Vazquez being traded to the Yankees and and the bullpen was built in a high-risk but high-reward fashion with the likes of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito being signed as free agents. On the offensive side, the team was set to mix up-and-coming sparksters like Jason Heyward and Martin Prado with stability in the form of Brian McCann and hopeful bounceback seasons from Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus.
Analysts, however, considered Nate McLouth to be a major keyholder to the potential success of the team. At about the one-third point of the season, the Braves find themselves atop the division—a.k.a. successful—while McLouth is unsuccessfully hitting just .176/.295/.282. On top of wondering how the team has been performing so well despite consistently employing a black hole at the bottom of their lineup, one big question remains: What the heck is going on with McLouth? A discussion of the former Pirates outfielder brings to light several different points worth exploring: the difference between numbers and value, the over- or underrated conundrum, and how rare it is for someone to experience such a funk with a relatively stable track record.
To begin our journey, though, let’s backtrack to the beginning of the decade, when a recently-drafted 19-year-old became a regular for the Hickory Crawdads in the low-A South Atlantic League. In that 2001 season, McLouth hit .285/.371/.464 with 12 home runs and 21 steals in just 96 games. The next year he found himself in High-A ball, regressing to a .244/.324/.392 with Lynchburg. Spending the following year in the same digs, McLouth regained some of his form, compiling a .300/.386/.411 line with 40 stolen bases. The power had been sapped quite a bit, but he once again looked like a future leadoff batter, with the abilities to both reach base and wreak havoc on the paths.
And then the power started to return, as he moved up to Double-A in 2004 and proceeded to hit .322/.384/.462 with 40 doubles and 31 stolen bases. Suffice to say, McLouth appeared to have a future in the big leagues, even if his statistical translations weren’t gaga over his potential major-league success. Our 2005 BP Annual told a slightly different tale:
Some optimistically compare McLouth to Lenny Dykstra, but that's code for a white guy who can run and get dirty. It's expected that he can play center field, and with his line-drive hitting skills, he's probably a lot of people's idea of a fine fourth outfielder. As long as Tike Redman's in center, that means he's got a shot at a regular job. He's young enough to keep picking up power, and within the system, he's the guy with the best shot of winding up in center or right by 2006.
McLouth would join the Pirates at the end of June in that 2005 season, splitting time between center and right field, ironically displaying little in the way of patience at the plate but much more in the power department. Sure, his season only consisted of 120 trips to the dish, but many remained skeptical that he would become anything more than a fourth outfielder. The trend continued, especially after a very poor showing in a relatively extended role in 2006, both with the glove and the stick. Heading into the 2007 campaign, we had this to say:
The Pirates have corned the market on FOGies—Fourth Outfielder Guys. Their farm system is practically the Fourth Outfielder Factory. If a young outfielder is just good enough to not start, the Pirates will sniff him out and make sure he stays that way. You can buy just one or you can buy them in bulk at a discount. McLouth? Duffy? McDuffy? Butter or no butter, salted or unsalted, cinnamon and sour cream varieties, frozen and unfrozen. Move away from Pittsburgh? They`ll ship a case to you so you never have to feel lonely. McLouth isn`t quite as good as Duffy, and plating only 6.3 percent of the men on base when he batted, the worst mark in baseball among hitters with 150 PA. Of course, he can`t really play center either. No matter how scrappy you are, people notice when you do this little with that much playing time.
It should be abundantly clear that McLouth had done little to this point to inspire confidence in his abilities to become a productive everyday major-league player, combining offense just good enough to keep earning a shot with defense not bad enough to cause an uproar. In other words, he had become the walking definition of a fourth outfielder, a term that has taken on derogatory connotations recently, as if it implies some sort of emasculation. But then something clicked, and McLouth proceeded to put up three straight very solid seasons, averaging a .265/.353/.467 line in that span with three-year averages of 20 home runs and 21 stolen bases.
The fourth outfielder moniker had been lifted, but unfortunately, two other related factors were working against him. First, his play in center field left much to be desired. Though he wasn’t Raul-Ibanez-in-left-field bad, his scrappy style of diving after balls and masking bad routes with ample speed could only hide so much of his poor overall ability in the most important spot in the outfield. The poor fielding and decent-but-not-overwhelming batting line led to the second counteracting factor, which is that McLouth essentially became wildly overrated. This happens to the best players on terrible teams, but McLouth found himself in quite the precarious situation, serving as the perfect segue to a brief point on numbers vs. value.
See, a .270/.350/.460 line is fantastic for a center fielder with a magical glove, but McLouth was better suited for a corner outfield position. Place him in left field, and suddenly the measuring stick for offensive prowess rises; while his fielding would undoubtedly improve, his offense would likely be much closer to average. Putting things together, his defense isn’t good enough to play center field, but his offense isn’t exactly the gold standard for corner outfielder spots. His baserunning certainly aids in disagreements with any assessment painting his current attributes as in line with fourth outfielders, but situations like this are always touchy to write about or discuss because players like McLouth normally don’t have many weaknesses; it’s just that their strengths aren’t that strong, and it is much more difficult to pinpoint a feeble strength than an outright weakness.
Regardless of anything previously discussed, McLouth is currently mired in a devastating slump, one that makes his center-fielding colleague Melky Cabrera look like Miguel Cabrera. McLouth isn’t getting on base enough to utilize his speed, isn’t displaying any power, and while a .269 BABIP is certainly a contributing factor, I refuse to believe that his performance to date is anywhere remotely close to “entirely” luck-related. McLouth’s TAv entering Tuesday’s action was just .224 after posting a very good .287 mark last season. The drop off of approximately 50 points got me thinking: How rare is it for a player to experience a similar drop, while also being productive in the year before the decline? That is, I wanted to find similarly large drops when a player went from .270 or higher in the TAv department to 50 points below that mark; going from .220 to .170 just isn’t very relevant in this forum.
Surprisingly, the query returned a whole heck of a lot of rows—3,871 to be exact. Filtering the results even further to find drops of 50 or more points from a baseline of .285 or higher returns over 2,400 rows, 781 of which are from the wild-card era alone (Seidnote—the largest drop with the aforementioned criteria belongs to Scott Brosius, who went from .299 to .203 in 1996-97). But then it dawned on me that what makes McLouth’s situation even more interesting is that from 2007-09 his TAv marks were .293, .301, and .287, an average of around .295, while soaring above the .280 mark in all three years. In 2007, he only amassed 382 plate appearances, but for the purposes of this query I looked for three straight seasons of 400 or more times at the plate, a .280-plus TAv in each season, and in the fourth year of the span, a drop of 40 or more points from the average of the prior three seasons.
The query returned 45 results since 1954, the three most recent of which belong to Chipper Jones, ironically a teammate of McLouth’s, Pat Burrell, and David Ortiz. The largest drop comes from Jimmy Wynn, who in 1971 saw his TAv fall 104 points below the three-year average from 1968-70. Details aside, a result set of a mere 45 player spans indicates that such a drastic drop off is rare in the annals of baseball history. But what are McLouth’s chances of turning things around and bouncing back?
Looking at the following season in the span—the fifth year—for the same players, what first piqued my interest was that only two-thirds actually played in that fifth season. The other 15 players either performed so poorly that they were out of baseball following the year of the decline, or missed the season due to injuries. Of those 30—and keep in mind that Jones, Ortiz, and Burrell inch into 2010 territory for that fifth season—the weighted average improvement on the fourth year is 23 points of TAv, as the 30 players improved from an average of around .257 to that of .280. While this does not automatically mean that McLouth will see his way out of the funk all the way to reclaim his established level of .280-plus TAv performance, the comparable spans and the numbers in the year after the slump are certainly favorable.
For those who have seen McLouth, what can you add? Is there something he is clearly doing differently? It seems odd that someone so young could see his skills deteriorate so quickly, and while we’re still dealing with a small sample, it isn’t as if this is an 0-for-22 slump. My natural inclination is that he is going to regress toward previously-established marks, but if there is a concrete underlying cause for concern, the mean in question could be lower than expected.
Historically speaking, though, what McLouth is currently experiencing is very rare, and while the comparable players found their way in the following year, a sample size of 30 is much too small to instill confidence moving forward. Though McLouth is seen by some as a fourth outfielder and finds himself in an awkward spot as a player who doesn’t seem to fit well, value-wise, anywhere in the outfield, he is certainly a much more viable contributor than he is currently showing, and while the Braves have been successful in spite of his suckitude, he will need to be more than a clubhouse presence to ensure they remain at the top of the division.