Monday, November 8, 2010

Player Review/Prediction: Nate McLouth

Nate McLouth entered 2010 coming off of two productive seasons.  One with the Pirates worth 4.6 WAR and a 3.0 WAR season split between Pittsburgh and Atlanta.  So, when he finished 2010 with a negative WAR value plenty of people were surprised.  Should we have been?

Well, yes. 

There wasn’t anything in McLouth’s 2008 and 2009 which raised any red flags for this kind of drop off.  So what happened?  Let’s look at some graphs to see if there are any trends that might point out the problem.

Walk rate looks ok

Strike out rate is definitely increasing.  But it isn’t so high as to suggest that McLouth would be one of the worst batters in baseball.

Batted ball profile isn't changing that much.  Line drive rate is decreasing.  That's not a good sign.

BABIP…dropped off of the table.  We have a lead.

Also a steady drop in power over the last two years.

So, what is going on?

Let’s look at the strikeouts first. 

At Fangraphs we can get an in depth look at McLouth’s swing habits. 

McLouth isn't swinging at more pitches out of the zone than normal: 21.2% in 2010, 21.3% career
McLouth isn't swinging more than normal: 40% in 2010, 40.3% career.
McLouth isn't making less contact than normal: 86.8% in 2010, 85.7% career.
Pitchers are throwing McLouth fewer strikes: 46.9% strikes in 2010, 50.5% career.

There’s nothing in his swinging that would indicate more strikeouts.  Must be something in his non-swinging.
Prior to 2010 McLouth saw 3.90 pitches per at bat.  A patient hitter since league average is 3.78.  In 2010 McLouth saw 4.15 pitches per at bat. 

One downfall of being a patient hitter is that by taking more pitches you have the opportunity to take more 3rd strikes.  The league average for strikeouts looking (compared to total strikeouts) is around 25%.   McLouth strikes out looking over 30% of the time prior to 2010, and in 2010?   44% of his strikeouts were the umpire’s decision.  What does that mean for McLouth?  I don’t know?  Did he lose his batting eye?  Not likely since all of his swing rates were the same.  He wasn’t swinging at bad pitches, why would he take good ones?  Were all the umpires out to get him, ringing him up on anything close?  Also doubtful. 

McLouth did suffer a concussion on June 9th after colliding with Jason Heyward.  A concussion is unlikely to help his season at all, but McLouth had already struck out in 22% of his plate appearances prior to the concussion (compared to 13% after.  Maybe it did help). 

Moving on to BABIP…

McLouth’s .221 BABIP would have been the 2nd worst in baseball had he enough at bats to qualify.  So, that jumps out.  McLouth doesn’t have any history of poor BABIP’s, so what happened?

BABIP on flyballs: .149 (.140 MLB Average, .145 career average)
BABIP on groundballs: .149 (.240 MLB Average, .218 career average)
BABIP on line drives: .586 (.750 MLB Average, .680 career average)

In 2010 McLouth’s Batting Average/On Base Percentage/Slugging line was:
.190/.298/.322 – ugly
By changing McLouth’s 2010 BABIP to MLB averages we get:
If we use his career averages (which include his poor 2010) instead we get:
Neither of those lines are good, but they aren’t nearly as ugly.

What about McLouth’s power?

ISO, or Isolated Power measures a players power using the formula ISO = (2B + (3B*2) + (HR*3)) / AB
McLouth had ISO’s above .200 his two years in Pittsburgh.  In Atlanta his ISO has been about .155.  The first thing to look at is if the change in stadium could be making a difference.  We do this by using park factors 

PNC Park in Pittsburgh has the following Park Factors for left-handed batters:
2B = 98
3B = 83
HR = 99
wOBA = 100

Turner Field in Atlanta has the following:
2B = 90
3B = 102
HR = 95
wOBA = 97

So, Atlanta is a bit tougher on left-handed hitters than Pittsburgh is but probably not enough to account for all the difference. 

Part of the problem is obvious.  His decreasing flyball and linedrive rates will lead to less power.  Flyballs become home runs, and linedrives become doubles and triples.  Hitting less flyballs and linedrives will lead to less extra base hits. 

So, what to make of this mess?  I think ‘mess’ is the right word.  ‘Mess’ certainly describes McLouth’s 2010.  ‘Mess’ also describes how I feel about this post.  It’s not nearly as organized as I’d like, nor are the answers as cut and dry.  I think McLouth’s BABIP will come back.  His numbers, especially on line drives are just too low to be sustainable. 

The changes in strikeouts and power are a different story.  I don’t know what to make of his increase in called third strikes?  Did he change his approach at the plate?  Does it have something to do with his new contacts?  I don’t know

I think the drop in power is more real.  He’s hitting less line drives and fly balls in a stadium that’s a bit rough on lefties. 

So, what’s my prediction?  McClouth comes back in 2011.  He’s not as bad of a player as his 2010 showed.  However, I’m going to be conservative.  The strikeouts and lack of line drives worry me.  I’ll pessimistically say:
.240/.330/.400 in 2011 for McLouth.

With the caveat that there is a much better chance that he returns to being the exact same player he was in 2008 and 2009 than there is that he repeats 2010.  

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