Sunday, October 17, 2010

Braves Player Round Up - Nate McLouth

In the off-season, I am going to review some of the Braves question marks, and discuss the pros and cons of these players.  I'll largely use Baseball and my own personal observations of players, but, I'll try to use stats where available.

The first player I will analyze, because he creates such strong feelings among Braves fans, is Nate McLouth.

McLouth was aquired in a 2009 trade with the Pirates that saw pitching prospect Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Gorkys Hernandez.  Only Morton really had any major league potential, and has failed to live up to it.  McLouth was coming off an All-Star season with the Pirates in 2008.  Of course, if not for the requirement that each team have an All-Star, McLouth's credentials were debatable. His 2008 season numbers were good, however, .276/.356/.853 and he led the league with 46 doubles, and he had a WAR of 4.6.  He seemed poised for stardom when he signed a large contract with Pittsburgh (3 years with a 4th year team option) after that 2008 season, so the 2009 trade appeared to observers to be a typical Pirate salary dump. He also battled some injury problems in 2009 which saw McLouth's numbers slip, and he had long periods with the Braves, as I started observing him, where he was awful.  A streaky, pull-hitting, 100+ strikeout lead-off hitter often down in counts with a poor caught stealing percentage indicated some potential problems with McLouth in 2009.

McLouth is owed $6.5M by the Braves in 2011.

While 2009 could be called a normal year for Nate, you need only look at the details of his at-bats to see something happened in 2010 to lower his average by 60 points and make him functionally useless.

What happened was:

  • Nate struck out looking in 44% of his strikeouts.  This is up significantly from his career average of 34%.  If you watched Nate this season, you can recall many times screaming at the TV, "How could you take that pitch!?!?!?!?!?"
  • Surprisingly, Nate saw more 2-0 and 3-1 counts than he historically saw, and well above the league average (could this be a product of the Braves philosophy of working pitchers deeper into the count?). As you would expect, Nate was at his best on these counts, hitting .500 on 2-0 pitches, and .333 on 3-0.  Nate's real problem is if you could get 2 strikes on him in 2010, he was nearly a dead-lock cinch to make an out, hitting .152 with 2 strikes. Nate's other issue - first pitches.  In 28 at bats where he put the ball into play on the first pitch, he hit .071.  Seriously, Nate, you're better off taking the first pitch in 2010, but, this was one of the things Nate came to Atlanta notorious for - swinging at first pitches, and 2010 was an aberration.  He's a career .299 first pitch hitter.
  • McLouth didn't get many AB's against lefties this year, but he was woeful against them, hitting .135.  Nate was similarly awful in road games, hitting just .134
  • As a baserunner, McLouth's caught stealing percentage declined from about 90% in Pittsburgh to roughly 78% in Atlanta.   Not good.
I think you get the picture of Nate hitting in 2010.  Horrible, with lots of aberrations from his norm.

  • Nate was a Gold Glove outfielder in 2008 with Pittsburgh.  Did he deserve it?  In a word, no.  While he only made one error, he only had 5 assists, and his sabermetric ratings are those of a below-average outfielder.
  • That is much more consistent with the Nate McLouth I observed in Atlanta.  I'd call him an indifferent fielder, frequently fielding fly balls with runners on 3rd and less than 2 outs and not even attempting a throw.  I know Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson called him on this on more than one occasion.  In fact, I vividly remember a game where with a runner on 3rd, McLouth called off Jason Heyward who was setting up to make a throw home, and McLouth didn't even make the throw.  He lost balls in lights on more than one occasion, and generally played a rotten CF.
What will the Braves do?  I don't know any major league club who is going to be willing to take on McLouth.  Given the money the Braves have to pay him in 2011, they will have to eat a significant portion of his salary to get anyone to take him.  Given that, I expect McLouth to get every opportunity in spring training to prove that he's regained the form that made him an all-star in Pittsburgh.  If he can't, and if he's willing to start the year in AAA Gwinnett (as he was gracious enough to spend time there in 2010, I don't know option status) he could be the highest paid minor leaguer, or seek his release.  Given the money involved, I don't expect to see him leave the Braves organization in 2011.  

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