It’s an age-old question. Nate McLouth was an All-Star caliber player in 2008 for the Pirates, and he followed it up with a decent season in 2009. While both were mid-3 fWAR seasons, 2008 was much better as 2009 had a resurgence defensively (+0.8 from -12.3) that hasn’t been backed up by the metrics. 2010 was unquestionably a disaster, but a good Spring Training in 2011 gave everyone a bit of hope that 2010 was simply a fluke. 14 games and 58 plate appearances into 2011, we’re seeing more of the 2010 McLouth. When do you give up on him?
It’s a tough question. On one hand, he’s been awful against major-league pitching for a little over a year, and he’s just awful defensively—decent range but an awful, awful arm. On the other hand, 2010 could just be a fluke, and after a solid spring, this stretch could just be part of the ebb and flow of a long season. We don’t want to make too much of nothing, but at the same time, the Braves can’t afford to keep throwing him out there if he simply isn’t going to succeed any longer. Making matters worse for McLouth and the Braves, Jordan Schafer seems to be recovering from his hiatus, starting the year .310/.429/.345 with the power possibly returning as he gets more comfortable, and everyone knows he is easily a much better defender (possibly 20 runs better) than McLouth. But the Braves need to know he’s done before they make a move.
Defensively, McLouth simply isn’t good. In his career, he’s netted -1.0, -4.7, -7.8, -12.3, 0.8, and -14.3 runs according to UZR, and TotalZone isn’t any happier about his play out there. While defensive metrics are extremely shaky over just a few games, +/- already has McLouth at -2 for the season as McLouth has looked the same as ever—decent range but afraid to throw the ball on a different plane than one you would expect to see land in a leprechaun’s pot. He’s simply bad out there, and his offense needs to make up for it.
And it simply isn’t. His .216/.286/.275 is reprehensible, especially for the guy hitting the second most times on the team. Will it get better? Looking initially at BABiP, his .275 mark is near dead-on with his career mark of .277, so we wouldn’t necessarily expect his BABiP to go back up and help his numbers. One reassuring note is that his LD% is 20% and well above his last few seasons. If he’s hitting this high number of line drives, we would expect his BABiP to be higher than his norm, and it indicates, should he continue to hit line drives, that his average/OBP will go up. Additionally, he’s hitting a higher number of ground balls, which also should help his BABiP.
His power, however, seems to have completely evaporated. In 2008, he hit 26 HR and 46 2B, and a year later, he hit 20 and 27. While he’s hit 3 doubles to start the season, he has zero home runs, and as you look at his spray chart below, he hasn’t been exactly banging down walls. When he’s hitting the ball in the air, it simply isn’t going anywhere, and this trend has been apparent over the last few seasons.
Another troubling aspect to McLouth’s game is his anemic walk rate. At 5.2%, McLouth isn’t going to get on enough to offset the fact that his batting average typically sits around .250. You can deal with it when a guy hits .300, but when he hits .250, that OBP isn’t going to clear .300. That’s not acceptable, especially as McLouth’s power has collapsed. Should he improve? Well, he’s swinging at a career-high 23.2% of pitches out of the zone, and his P/PA is a career-low 3.76. Perhaps he is simply pressing and trying to hit the ball instead of being more patient and waiting for the hits to come, but if he’s pressing, starting slow isn’t going to help him improve.So what should the Braves do? From all the information above, it seems McLouth is simply done. Barring a resurgence of power and plate discipline, McLouth is nowhere near the player he was in 2008, and to be honest, that’s the only time he ever was that player. He was already a bad defensive player, and now, he’s also a bad offensive player. If you really look at it, McLouth is actually worse than he was last season. His wOBA of .246 is almost 40 points below last season as he’s lost OBP and power. But the question remains if it will return, and I don’t know that we know. At this point, McLouth is officially under a Release Watch. He probably has two weeks to show some indication that his offensive talents are returning, and if they haven’t returned within the week, he’ll be upgraded to a Release Warning, with one more week to get himself going. Meanwhile, Schafer will have to continue to prove that he’s capable of manning center field. Defensively, he’s fine and already much better than McLouth, but offensively, he’ll need to show that he’s simply not in a two-week hot stretch. The time for giving up on Nate McLouth is approaching. It’s not here yet, but it’s soon … very soon.