What’s Behind Nate McLouth’s Fast Start?
Last night against the Kansas City Royals, Nate McLouth went 1 for 3 with a walk and a stolen base. Hitting out of the leadoff spot for the Orioles, that raised his line for the season to .313/.414/.485. Getting on base in two out of his four plate appearances has been a pretty common occurrence for Nate this season. He has taken to his new role as the leadoff hitter for the Orioles against right handed starters with aplomb.
The job of a leadoff hitter is to get on base so that the more powerful hitters behind him in the lineup can drive him in. That said, there are still some managers who just take the fastest guy in the lineup and put him in the leadoff slot. Take Juan Pierre for example; he’s batting leadoff for the Marlins with a .287 on base percentage. But look at those steals. He has 12 steals! Even with the steals, he’s not getting his job done as a leadoff man because he’s getting on base less than 29 percent of the time. No matter how many stolen bases a leadoff hitter racks up, he’s not doing his job if he’s not getting on base.
On the other hand, McLouth has been doing an excellent job in the leadoff role for the Orioles by getting on base over 41 percent of the time. He’s been doing everything well so far this season as evidenced by his .391 wOBA and 147 wRC+. What’s behind Nate’s success so far this season?
Well, for one thing he’s drawing walks an excellent 14.5 percent of the time. On top of that, he’s rarely striking out with a strikeout rate of only 9.4 percent. He’s actually drawn 17 walks while only striking out 11 times. All of this getting on base has helped him score 25 runs in 28 games.
Watching his at bats this year, it seems like he’s done an excellent job of not swinging at pitches that were out of the strike zone or that weren’t in the part of the zone that he can do damage in. Let’s drill down even deeper into his plate discipline numbers and see if that’s really the case.
According to FanGraphs, McLouth has only swung at 16.4 percent of pitches that were outside the strike zone to him this year. While he’s always been above average at not swinging at pitches out of the zone, this year he’s taken it to a whole new level. 16.4 percent would be his career low, or high depending on how you want to look at it. It’s also the second lowest rate in the major leagues right now behind A.J. Ellis of the Dodgers. The league average rate so far this season is 29.2 percent. It’s pretty clear that McLouth is doing an excellent job laying off pitches outside the strike zone.
If you thought that McLouth’s walk rate was up because pitchers were throwing him more balls than normal, that’d be understandable. But it’s not the case. 51.3 percent of pitches thrown to him have been in the strike zone when the league throws 46.2 percent of all pitches in the strike zone. So he’s seeing about 5 percent more pitches in the strike zone than the typical batter and he’s still walking 14.5 percent of the time.
The other thing that McLouth is doing exceptionally well so far this season is making contact. His contact rate of 92.1 percent is the 5th highest rate in the majors. He’s able to maintain that kind of elite contact rate because he almost never swings and misses at strikes. And as we saw earlier, he’s doing as well as anyone at not swinging at balls. When a pitcher is throwing a strike to Nate, he is only swinging and missing at the pitch an astonishing 3 percent of the time. That is the 4th lowest rate in the league behind such contact luminaries as Marco Scutaro, Placido Polanco and Nori Aoki.
To sum up McLouth’s approach at the plate these days: he’s not swinging at balls, he’s swinging at less strikes than an average hitter, and when he does swing he’s making more contact than almost everyone else in the league. That’s how he’s accumulated 17 walks and 11 strikeouts so far this season. And that’s the approach that’s led to him putting up a .414 on base percentage so far.
I also wanted to look at his batted ball mix to see if anything had changed dramatically. He has traded a few fly balls for line drives but his ground ball rate is exactly the same as last year. Everything looks pretty normal, though he is hitting less infield flies than he has in the last few years. That is a good thing since over 99 percent of infield flies are turned into outs. McLouth’s HR/FB rate is right in line with his career as well, so he hasn’t seen any more of his fly balls leave the park than normal either.
The one thing we haven’t talked about yet is the fact that McLouth has done almost all of this versus right handed pitching. He has only been in the lineup when a right handed pitcher is on the mound for the opposing team. When a lefty is starting for the opponent, Nolan Reimold has been inserted into left field. During the offseason, I wrote that McLouth should be platooned with Reimold because McLouth has historically struggled versus lefties.
His career slash line versus lefties is .222/.302/.347. Not so good. For comparison, Nate’s career line versus righties is .260/.350/.449. So I thought at the time that it would be a good idea for him to only be in the lineup versus righties. Apparently, that idea made some sense and that is what Buck Showalter has decided to go with so far. But with his new and improved approach at the plate this season, should he start to see more time versus lefties too?
I don’t know the answer to that question. Nolan Reimold has struggled so far this season and has only put up a .194/.267/.344 slash line in 105 plate appearances. He’s been slightly better against lefties than righties, but not much. I think we can all agree that Reimold has a lot more talent at the plate than he’s shown so far this season. Will that talent come out if he’s limited to the designated hitter solely versus left handed pitching? I doubt it.
It’s tough to say whether Nate McLouth’s improved approach at the plate this season would continue if was facing pitchers of both hands on a consistent basis. If it did, it would be worth playing McLouth every day no matter what hand the starting pitcher threw the baseball with. Hopefully McLouth maintains this approach throughout the season, because it’s led to him starting the season doing everything the Orioles hoped for when they brought him back in the offseason.
What do you guys think? Should McLouth start to see time versus left handed starters? Feel free to discuss that here.
Note: All stats are through Tuesday night’s game.