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