What to Expect from Nate McLouth

The Orioles resigned Nate McLouth this afternoon to a one year/$2 million contract.  McLouth can earn an additional $500k in bonuses if he reaches 500 plate appearances in 2013.  McLouth will likely start the season as the team’s everyday leftfielder.  If he is able to produce at a level near what he did in 2012 for the Orioles, then he should be a very valuable contributor and his contract will be a bargain for Baltimore. Of course, the million dollar question is this – is it realistic to expect McLouth to produce at the same level he did last season for the Orioles?

The skeptics are quick to point out that from 2010 through the first month of the 2012 season, McLouth put up a rather dismal line of 203/.312/.313, which adds up to a meager .624 OPS.  They point to the fact that McLouth’s impressive 2012 numbers with the Orioles came in only 209 AB’s (236 plate appearances) which is too small of a sample size to draw any significant conclusions from.  There is certainly some validity to both of those points, but by looking chopping up McLouth’s career in different ways, it is hard not to conclude tha this 2010 season was the outlier and that we can expect to see a Nate McLouth closer to the one we saw in 2012 next season.

First, here are McLouth’s numbers with the Orioles in 2012:

209 AB’s, .268/.342/.435 (.777 OPS), 7 HR’s, 12 SB

Adjusted to a 162 game, 511 at bat season (McLouth’s career average number of at bats per 162 games), Nate’s 2012 Orioles’ stats would look like the following:

.268/.342/.435 (.777 OPS), 17 HR’s, 29 SB’s

Over eight Major League seasons, McLouth is a .248/.335/.421 (.756 OPS) hitter, averaging 17 HR’s and 20 stolen bases.  Looks very similar to his 2012 adjusted numbers, doesn’t it?  Nate stole bases at a higher clip in 2012 and his OBP and SLG were slightly higher than his career norms, but they are still in the same ballpark.

From 2005 – 2009, Nate had 1,812 at bats for the Pirates and Braves and put up a slash line of .260/.342/.454 (.796 OPS) while averaging 14 homeruns and 15 stolen bases.  Once again, those numbers look very similar to McLouth’s performance with Baltimore in 2012.  Here are two more lines to look at:

1,980 AB’s, .260/.343/.455 (.798 OPS), 20 HR’s per season, 21 SB per season  - - 1st stint with the Pirates (2005 – May, 2009)

606 AB’s, .244/.349/.381 (.731 OPS), 15 HR’s, 16 SB  - - 2nd Half of 2009 season and 2011 season with Braves

With the exception of a drop in slugging in the combined 2nd half 2009/2011 season numbers, those two lines are once again close to Nate’s 2012 Orioles’ performance and his career performance.  To wrap all of this up nicely, here is McLouth’s career line removing only his subpar 2010 season where he hit .190/.298/.322 (.620 OPS), with 6 HR’s and 7 SB’s in 288 at-bats:

2,345 AB’s, .254/.339/.432 (.771 OPS), 17 HR per season, 20 SB’s per season.

Again, that is extremely close to his adjusted 2012 numbers and his career totals.

All of this is just a circuitous way of showing that McLouth’s 2012 numbers are very much in-line with how he has performed throughout his entire career save for one 288 at-bat season in 2010.  Any way I carve up the numbers it comes to the same conclusion, which is that Nate McLouth has been about a .770 OPS hitter with one extreme outlier of a season in which he only received a measly 288 at bats.  In my opinion, his 2010 season appears to be the outlier (and a small sample size to boot).  The data certainly supports that conclusion.

Digging in a little further, there is not a lot of evidence to suggest that McLouth’s numbers are being held up by his peak-years and that he is currently in a decline.  His worst season was three years ago in 2010.  He was much more productive in 2011 despite battling a series of injuries that sidelined him for than half of the season.  McLouth’s numbers ticked up again in 2012 even when taking into account his 57 at bats with the Pirates at the start of the season.  There is no downward trend there.  Before going to the Braves there was no noticeable downward either. Watching Nate play last year, it would be a stretch to say that he looks like an old player or a player in serious decline.  Neither his numbers nor his play really suggest that McLouth is a past-his-prime player in sharp decline.

I get the skepticism surrounding McLouth.  The performance of an average player of his career resembles a bell curve.  We expect to see a player grow and mature, reach his peak, then decline.  Therefore, once a player takes a step back – for a season or two seasons – it is easy to jump to the conclusion that they are on the decline.  The truth is that the careers of most players don’t follow a nice arching pattern.  Most players have down years.  Many players have start on their decline then have a a season or two where they will rebound slightly.  There is plenty of evidence to suggest that McLouth’s career took a detour – perhaps a slightly unusual one – but that he is not yet in the decline stage of his career.  If McLouth is healthy in 2013, I would fully expect him to post numbers incline with what he has done throughout his career – a .770 OPS, 15-20 HR’s, and 20 SB’s.