Once you display a skill, you own it? That’s what the Braves and their fans are hoping applies to Nate McLouth this season. To say that last year was a disaster may actually be an understatement. A ghastly .283 wOBA from a hitter who was rather consistent over his three previous seasons was quite an unpleasant surprise. McLouth’s strikeout rate increased to the worst mark of his career, his isolated slugging percentage dove for the second straight year to a career low of .132 and his BABIP plunged to just .221.
Though it is usually foolish to put much stock into spring training numbers, especially for veterans, McLouth hinted at impending doom when he “hit” an unsightly .118/.217/.196 over 51 spring at-bats in 2010. Throughout the regular season, he never got it going with the bat and a multitude of nagging injuries, plus a mid-June collision that resulted in a concussion, all likely factored into his poor performance. McLouth did return soon after his concussion last season, suggesting the injury was not too serious. Given the additional rest from the offseason and no word of any lasting effects, I am cautiously optimistic that he is fully recovered.
Looking beyond the surface of McLouth’s forgettable 2010, we see that he still showed some flashes of his old skills. He walked at an above average 11.5% clip and stole seven bases at a 78% success rate. As my opening question pondered, we cannot simply forget about a player’s past skills, especially a 29-year old hitter who should still be in his prime. McLouth has displayed above average power before with a .200+ ISO in 2007 and 2008 and stole at least 19 bases each year from 2007-2009. He has always been a fly ball hitter, with rates consistently above 40%, which should ensure that he approaches 20 home runs given a full slate of at-bats.
Another glimmer of hope is provided by McLouth’s plate discipline metrics. Despite a career worst strikeout rate, his 86.9% contact percentage and 5.1% swinging strike rate were both the second best marks of his career. Was he simply watching more pitches than usual go by for called strikes? StatCorner’s TkS% metric tells us no, as McLouth actually took the fewest percentage of pitches for a strike than he ever had in the past. This is compelling evidence to believe a rebound in contact rate is in the cards.
For reasons unbeknownst to me, new Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez plans to open the season with McLouth in the two-hole, sandwiched between Martin Prado and Chipper Jones. This should provide an unexpected boost to McLouth’s RBI+Runs total, as most assumed he would be buried toward the bottom of the order, while Jason Heyward occupied the second slot. With no competition for the Braves’ center field job, better health, a desirable position in the lineup, and a history of solid skills pre-2010, Nate McLouth will almost certainly be a cheap risk on draft day that could ultimately prove to be a bargain.