What Do We Have in Nate McLouth?
'Twould seem an odd question to be asking when Nate the Great has been one of, if not THE, most valuable Pirates over the first half of the 2008 season. Nate's performance is sweet vindication for those of us who have tirelessly beaten the drum for him to be a fulltime regular since he first saw action late in 2005. And yet, as his batting average (though not so much his OPS) has slowly ticked downward over the past few weeks---he's now hitting a still-robust .290---I couldn't help but take a second look at Mr. McLouth and what he's likely to give us going forward.
A significant part of my personal enthusiasm for Number 13 is the fact that he has always been what Rick Pitino calls "a fills-up-the-stats-sheet guy". Versatility is particularly important in the National League, where unlike the A.L. they don't play beer league softball. Over the first two-plus years of his career---when he wasn't being wasted on the bench by Genius Jim Tracy---McLouth looked to me like the baseball version of Pitino's "fills-up-the-stats-sheet guy". I figured, he might never hit for a superlative average, he might never crack 30 home runs, he might not be overwhelming in any one statistical category, but his overall contribution, both offensively and defensively, would make him one of the better all around players in all of baseball.
I still believe that to be true.
So, why am I writing this?
For two reasons. One, if Nate's .290 or lower average is more in keeping with his true talent than his well over .300 figure from April and May, it means that we're back to what even his supporters figured he was. That is, a high .200s hitter who will get a lot of extra bases though not necessarily by hitting a lot of home runs, and who will make a significant portion of his contribution to the team with his glove and with his legs. So far so good, but why does he only have 8 steals all season long despite being an expert base stealer who has been caught a total of 5 times, with 40 SBs, in his CAREER? Surely he ought to be running wild on the basepaths or at least, a lot more often than he has to this point in time.
Which leads me to the second reason I'm asking, "What Do We Have in Nate McLouth". That is, if he isn't going to be the elite base stealer I still believe he's capable of---whether that's because of John Russell's philosophy or because Nate's still bugged by that spring training hamstring strain or what---that means we have to take a hard look at how much "standard" production he'll give us in the future. Again, you may ask, Will, are you crazy? What's wrong with 15 HR and 50 RBI before the All-Star break? Again, nothing. But while those are great numbers for a center fielder, they are merely good numbers for a corner outfielder. And a corner spot is where Nate will be no later than next season, because wunderkind Andrew McCutchen is about to take center stage.
And THAT, boys and girls, is why I'm a wee bit concerned. Mind you, I still believe that Nate is more than capable of being a corner outfielder if he is allowed to run the way he can. With 30-plus steals at a better than 80% success rate and an accompanying 100 runs scored, he is Eric Byrnes and maybe better than that. Without the SBs, he is Luis Gonzalez before Gonzalez started putting up crazy numbers with Arizona.
Maybe I'm putting too much emphasis on the running game, and maybe Nate will be a consistent 25 HR, 90-100 RBI guy, in which case he's more than capable of corner OF production and the whole point is moot. But I think he's more likely a .280 15-20 HR with 70-80 RBI kind of hitter on a year in, year out basis, in which case his bat, while still good, is a little light for a corner outfielder. That's why I want to see him running with abandon. We need his whole game, not just the part of it that's been better than expected in 2008.
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