Nate McLouth is not only back from the dead. Heâ€™s better than ever. The 31 year-old outfielder is enjoying a renaissance season for the upstart Orioles. With 14 stolen bases on the season, the oft-injured outfielder seems to be enjoying regular playing time. The problem with McLouth is that he hasnâ€™t recorded a season with 685 plate appearances since his fourth year in the league (2008).
At 31, McLouth has recorded only 3148 career plate appearances. Dividing that number by 685 (a full season) yields only 4.59. Ostensibly, this is only McLouthâ€™s fifth full season in the majors.
The first step in analyzing a possible breakout is to responsibly analyze the data we have to work with over what is essentially a small sample. According to this article by Baseball Prospectusâ€™ Russell A. Carleton (aka: Pizza Cutter), strikeout rate is reliable around 60 plate appearances with walk rate registering at around 120 plate appearances.
The essential point regarding small sample size analysis though is that the data is not predictive. For example, if we discern that McLouthâ€™s 11% strikeout rate is indeed a legitimate improvement, (which we will later on), it does not remove the possibility that McLouth reverts back to old habits. It merely lowers the statistical expectation of that occurrence.
Swing pattern (essentially a plate approach profile) data becomes useful at 150 plate appearances. For more on the plate discipline stats used below, visit this FanGraphs article.
Here is the data we have so far from McLouth in 2013
|PA||BB %||K %||O-Swing %||Z-Swing %||Contact %||ISO||SwStr %|
Letâ€™s contrast that data with 2009, his most recent full season of data.
|Year||PA||BB %||K %||O-Swing %||Z-Swing %||Contact %||ISO||SwStr %|
We can draw a vague conclusion that McLouth seems to be selecting pitches better and making more contact when he does swing. However, letâ€™s dive a bit deeper.
Over McLouthâ€™s career the biggest hole in his swing appears to be the fastball away/up and away (all ballâ€™s), as well as up and in (strikes). Consult this chart from Baseball Prospectus for visual reference. When consulting the chart, look at the top left corner and label in #1. Go across the grid, numbering 1-5 on the top, come back across to the box directly below #1, number 6-10. Rinse and repeat for the entire chart.
In zones 1, 2, 6, 9, and 16 (his weakest in terms of batting average against the fastball), McLouth has swung at 45% of fastballs thrown in those zones, yielding a batting average of .132 (15-114).
Additionally, according to the classification system used by Brooks Baseball and Baseball Prospectus, McLouth has seen a total of 1259 fastballs in his career. He has swung and missed (Whiff/Rate) on 168 of them. Thatâ€™s a career fastball whiff/rate of 13.34%. Of those 168 whiffs, 53 of them (32%) have come in zones 1, 2, 6, 9, and 16.
In what we acknowledge is an extremely small sample, McLouth has seen 34 of the 90 fastballs that heâ€™s been thrown outside of the strike zone. He has swung at just three of them. He has missed on just one. McLouth has only swung and missed at three of the total 90 fastballs he has seen. That gives him an insane whiff/rate of only 3.3% on the fastball in 2013. We should remember he has a career whiff/rate of 13.34% on the fastball.
With a batting average on balls in play of only .301, McLouth is hitting .281/.364/.438 with 14 stolen bases. He looks fresher and healthier than ever before and is primed for a monster campaign should he sustain his current level of success against the fastball. With 33 runs scored already in the bank, McLouth owners can expect 100 runs, 16 home runs, 61 RBI, a .280 batting average and 30+ stolen bases health permitting. That easily puts him in Top-20 outfielder territory.