Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Player Profile: Nate McLouth

It is no secret that the SABR community stood athwart the selection of Nate McLouth as the 2008 NL Rawlings Gold Glove recipient in center field. Several defensive metrics bore witness to McLouth’s futility that year, but no amount of data or reason prevented Gold Glove voters from deferring to their bias for players possessing that oh-so-valuable quality of ‘grittiness’. (Think Aaron Rowand and David Eckstein, or basically any white guy who appears to overachieve. A gritty player may also be identified by possessing large quantities of 'stick-to-it-iveness'.)

But then a curious thing happened. After struggling to hold his own in center as a Pittsburgh Pirate during 2007 and 2008, McLouth was a defensive asset in 2009. In fact, even though he experienced some regression from his career year at the plate in 2008 (.853 '08 OPS; .788 '09 OPS) McLouth was just as valuable in 2009 (3.5 '08 WAR, 3.6 '09 WAR) because he was a dramatically improved defender (-14.5 '08 UZR, 3.6 '09 UZR). And that’s including some DL time courtesy of a nagging hamstring injury.

Your initial reaction, like mine, may have been that McLouth probably benefitted from his mid-season change of venue from PNC Park to Turner Field. Maybe Turner Field was just easier to defend than PNC. But the numbers tell a different story. McLouth was markedly better while patrolling center at PNC Park than at Turner Field. According to RAA2, McLouth's defense was worth +8 runs above average with Pittsburgh but fell to -7 with Atlanta.

Now, a limitation of this information is that it is not segregated by park (i.e., home and away). But that shortcoming doesn’t make Nate McLouth’s defensive 2009 any less enigmatic, nor does it give us any better of an idea of what to expect from McLouth in 2009. If the 2007/08 version shows up, Melky Cabrera might prove a rather useful player for the Braves. Putting Melky in center and McLouth and right would save the Braves at least 10 runs in the field.

But if Nate McLouth did have some sort of breakthrough in center field last season, Melky Cabrera becomes even more useless than he initially appeared when he came to Atlanta as part of the Javier Vazquez payroll dump trade.

While we can’t ignore McLouth’s 2009 in the field, it’s more likely that we’ll see the old Nate McLouth than the +4.7 UZR/150 Nate McLouth. Playing CF isn’t something that gets easier to do as you get older, and lingering hamstring issues are never good for a player whose value is so heavily driven by his speed.

McLouth's bat is something more of a known quality - though the drop in power in 2009 makes you wonder if Nate has already passed his peak. A 5% uptick in his ground balls on balls in play drove the power dive while a slide in his contact rate (84% in '08, '80% in '09) drove a .020 BA decline.  Otherwise, McLouth's base skills remain stable.

This is what two major publications have projected for Mr. McLouth's 2010 season:

Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster: .260/.339/.429
Bill James Baseball Handbook: .263/.344/.449

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