The Rebirth of Nate McLouth

The recently-released All Star Game rosters are set to display baseball’s young talent – youngsters Bryce Harper and Mike Trout got starting nods. Talented Orioles third baseman Manny Machado is a reserve, while his teammates Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy are starters.

One Oriole not on the roster is 31 year-old outfielder Nate McLouth – who is having an impressive bounce-back season after his debut with the Pirates and a stint with the Braves. Early in his career, McLouth wasn’t a 40-HR power hitter, but did have significant pop: he posted an ISO over .200 in 2007 and 2008, which correlated with good production.

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Early in the 2009 season, McLouth was traded to the Braves for pitchers Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton, and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. In 129 games that year he hit 20 home runs, and posted a .179 ISO and 112 wRC+ – similar to his numbers from the previous two years. The year 2010, however, proved challenging – McLouth’s production was poor, and compounded by injury problems that included a concussion following an outfield collision, and an oblique injury.

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The 2011 season was an improvement, but not by much. McLouth re-signed with the Pirates in December 2011, only to be designated for assignment in May 2012, and later signed with the Orioles on a minor-league contract. Over 89 games played with the two teams in 2012, his numbers closely resembled those from 2011. But the Orioles saw enough to sign him to a one-year, $2 million deal, and thus far in 2013, McLouth has improved, and is poised to finish with a wRC+ above 100 again.

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This year, McLouth’s production is reflected in his higher on-base and slugging percentages, which are reminiscent of his early years – but his ISO remains low. Indeed, ZiPS only forecasts 11 home runs for him this year. So he’s a different type of hitter – but how so? For one, he’s making significantly more contact in 2013 than he had in years past.

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McLouth has always swung at roughly 40% of pitches, and this year is no different. But his contact rate has jumped significantly – to more than 90% for the first time in his career, thanks to an O-Contact rate of more than 79.0% for the first time in his career, as well as a career-high 94.5% Z-Contact rate, per Baseball Info Solutions. To go along with that, he’s striking out less than he ever has before. Perhaps just as important as the improved contact rate, though, is the type of hits McLouth is getting when he makes contact.

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Note the gradual uptick in line-drive percentage from 2010 to 2013. McLouth has become less of a fly ball-heavy, home run hitter and more of a line drive hitter. McLouth currently ranks 20th in the league in line-drive percentage, with James Loney the leader at 29.2%. Of the 19 players above him, only two have a wRC+ below 100: Paul Konerko, and Andy Dirks. Notable names above McLouth on the list besides Loney include: Freddie Freeman, Joe Mauer, Joey Votto, Matt Carpenter, Jay Bruce, and Andrew McCutchen. Line drives are the most run-producing hit on average, and McLouth’s rebirth as a line-drive hitter is paying dividends. He’s also showing off his speed once on base – McLouth has 24 stolen bases already this year, more than he’s had in any full season and good for fifth in baseball.

In fact, by wRC+, McLouth (113) is the third-best run producer on the Orioles to Chris Davis (195) and Manny Machado (122). He leads Adam Jones (110), Nick Markakis (100), and J.J. Hardy (93) in that regard. He might not have made the All Star game, but Nate McLouth will be an important piece for the Orioles as they look to make a playoff run down the stretch.

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