As we come to down to the homestretch of the 2012 MLB season, we find many teams not only still alive in the hunt for a playoff berth, but also a division title. One of the more befuddling teams this season has been the Baltimore Orioles, who currently share 1st place in the AL East with the New York Yankees, after spending much of the season atop the division alone, and at one point, enjoying a 10 game lead on the second place O’s.
On a team full of headscratchers, one player rises above the rest, and sits atop the mountain of improbables, as King of the WTF’s.
Ladles and gentlespoons, I give you Nate McLouth – nay – FORMER ALL STAR Nate McLouth.
A midseason minor league signing after not hitting enough to make the most of his second tour of duty with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Nate has done his share to bring home a handful of improbable victories, in a season full of improbables for the Orioles, and in a scant number of at bats. From baseball purgatory (or at least AAA affiliate Norfolk), to hero, McLouth has done about as much as you can ask a guy in 98 at bats.
So how did he get to late inning heroics from a 2010 season distinguished by a WPA of -1.31, especially given a league wide acknowledgement that his bat speed has been in decline ever since his All Star season of 2008?
As usual, I will look at the numbers, some standard, some advanced, but all delightful, and not to be afraid of. I know what many of you are thinking already…
…but hang with me on this. If not, skip ahead a couple of paragraphs, or bide your time with the many faces of McLouth.
So what can we say about McLouth’s Charm City success? Is it a revival of past Pirate prowess, or the apex of a disappointing post-Atlanta career? Looking at what Nate’s done with the O’s, during his breakthrough 2008 All Star campaign, and his career, overall, let’s see if we can answer this WTF moment, with the help of our buddies at Fangraphs:
Nothing really jumps out as something indicating the turn for the better for McLouth’s hitting. He’s walking and striking out as much as he has over his career, with unremarkable power numbers. His BABIP has increased a hair thus far in his Baltimore stint, but is still slightly below average. His line drive percentage (LD%) has gone up a tick, but can be readily paired with BABIP, so doesn’t pose much of an explanation of Nate’s success on its own. Again, we must consider small sample size – right around 100 AB’s for his 2012 Baltimore appearances. His stolen base rates are also at career average, so his legs aren’t helping his cause any more than they did in his heyday.
Looking at his batted ball, pitch type, and plate discipline, we can see that, in general, his approach to pitchers, and what he swings at, and the success he has with those swings in making contact, compared to the pitcher’s approach to him, in what they are throwing him, have not seen any significant changes. The only minor variation I see is that he is seeing more cutters, as the pitch becomes more and more the bread and butter of all hurlers; this bodes well for a guy whose bat speed has declined significantly over the last few years. Throw a slider/cutter to a guy with slider/cutter speed bat speed, chances are, he’s going to hit it. However, the spectre of small sample size haunts us yet again.
So what do we have? We have a guy who is making the most of an opportunity, and playing the game within the limits of his fading, albeit still productive, abilities. Hard work, catching lightning in a bottle one last time due to small sample size, a head clearing trip to AAA, and making the most of the cutters he sees, all add up to a worthwhile and shrewd signing by Baltimore; let’s be honest, a bench/spot starter type player who gives you a 0.6 fWAR is nothing to complain about.
For us, we have a true WTF? story, and one so WTFish, even Nate can’t believe it: