Nate McLouth Is a 4th Outfielder?

“Nate McLouth is still a fourth OF masquerading as a starting CF.”

That’s Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this comment, and I don’t get it. Take a look at McLouth’s numbers for the past three seasons.

season	OPS+	+/-	SB/CS
2007	110	-9	22/1
2008	126	-37	23/3
2009	109	+3	19/6

There is no arguing that McLouth is an above-average hitter, and when you add in his contributions on the basepaths it’s clear that he is a valuable offensive player. His lone deficiency is on defense, where he drew the ire of many saber-minded commentators for winning a Gold Glove while having the worst Plus/Minus in the league. He also was the Pirates lone All-Star representative in 2008, because someone had to go. But the justifiable backlash against his mainstream overrating doesn’t justify relegating him to part-time status.

So, let’s tackle the defense. In 2007, he had a poor defensive season with a -9 Plus/Minus that when translated to a full season of work would have been a -16. Not good, but not in -37 territory. In 2009, he seems to have corrected the problem, becoming league average. Maybe it’s a blip, and he hasn’t improved. After watching him for half a season, I don’t really understand how anyone could have awarded him a Gold Glove. Yet, I thought he was adequate and a defensive upgrade over the supposedly solid Jordan Schafer, who posted a -5 Plus/Minus for one-third of the season (Yes, I get it: small sample and he’s young. Just pointing out that the metric that damns McLouth says he was better defensively than Schafer in 2009).

But that -37 may not adequately capture his defensive ability, and the Plus/Minus creator John Dewan seems to agree, “All in all, I no longer think of McLouth as the worst center fielder in baseball. It means something that at least some of the managers and coaches think highly of him.” In addition, Dewan examined McLouth’s performance at a more granular level in The Fielding Bible: Volume II and found McLouth’s biggest weakness: deep balls, especially those near the wall. Does this have something to do with defensive positioning, the park in Pittsburgh, or McLouth’s ability? This is difficult to answer, but the Plus/Minus of McLouth’s replacement in Pittsburgh Andrew McCutchen reveals something interesting. In two-thirds of a season he posted a Plus/Minus of -17. I think BIS and Pittsburgh need to get together and see it there is a measurement or coaching problem that needs to be addressed. McLouth and McCutchen might both have been poor fielders in Pittsburgh, but I think there was also be something else going on.

Even if you take the Plus/Minus values at face value and compare it with his Adjusted Batting Runs per 162 for the past three season is 15 runs above average. His average Plus/Minus for the past 3 years (stretching 2007 out to his 2008 playing time) is -17, which you can multiply times .56 to get about -10 runs. So, he’s still a player who is five runs above average.

In conclusion, I think there is very little evidence to support the claim that McLouth is a fourth outfielder. He may not be an All-Star or a Gold-Glover, but he’s a starting center fielder for most major-league teams.

7 Responses “Nate McLouth Is a 4th Outfielder?”

  1. Sky says:

    Why does Joe jump from starting CF to 4th outfielder? How about a corner spot, where any fielding deficiencies can be hidden a bit more than in CF? Unless McLouth’s skillset can better be leveraged in CF than LF/RF, he’s probably going to rate more than ten runs better, which is the typical adjustment between CF and LF/RF.

  2. I think its worth noting that his UZR shows very similar defensive abilities (and the intriguing distribution). Prior to this season, I would argue that McLouth was not good enough defensively to be a centerfielder, period. That means his offense would have to play at a corner, and while I think that it does, it is a much closer question than in centerfield. I think Sheehan overstates the case against McLouth, but I think you’re probably overstating the case for him.

  3. Colin Wyers says:

    Oriole Way, UZR and Fielding Bible Plus/Minus both are generated using BIS batted ball data. If there’s a systemic bias in the Pittsburgh data (as JC is suggesting) then they would both show the same (incorrect) result for McLouth’s defense.

    That -37 result from the Fielding Bible is just too outlandish to be believed, in my opinion, at least as a measure of McLouth’s actual abilities. One season of data isn’t enough to make that determination. JC isn’t reporting opportunities here, so I can’t figure out his +/- over the full three-year period, but I’d bet it’s probably acceptable for a center fielder of his offensive capabilities.

  4. Rick says:

    We had a chat with John Dewan on a site I’m on and he was pretty adamant that you’d need three years of data to make any sort of judgment about the fielding abilities of any player. From watching McClouth I’d rate his as an average CF, not that I’m a professional scout or anything. I’d feel better if he was in LF for the Braves instead of CF.

  5. P. W. Hjort says:

    It’s worth noting that McLouth’s UZR/150 was much better in 2009 with Pittsburgh (5.8) than it was with Atlanta (-5.6).

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