To say that Nate McLouth has been a bit of a disappointment in Atlanta this season is probably an understatement. McLouth is in the midst of his third straight .800+ OPS season when the Braves acquired him from Pittsburgh last year, and though he scuffled a bit in the power department after coming over, he still finished with a decent .256/.352/.436 batting line. In 2010 though, he's fallen off a cliff - he's hitting just .176/.295/.282. What's going on?
The first thing that caught my eye was a 27.1% strike-out rate, which is well above his career rate (19.9%) and easily the worst he's ever had (previous high was 23.4% in 2007). It's kind of bizarre, given that McLouth's contact rate is better than average at 85.6% (right in line with his career rate). His swing rates - both in general, and on pitches specifically in and out of the strike-zone, according to FanGraphs - are also very consistent. His overall rate of swinging strikes is down from 2009, and a touch below what it is for his career. Additionally, pitchers are throwing him fewer pitches in the strike-zone than the league average. It all seemed very strange from a quick glance.
One of the big differences found when drilling into the Pitch FX data, is that McLouth is getting caught looking a whole lot more - 43.5% of his K's have been of the backwards variety in 2010, while only 25.3% were last year. Of the 108 two-strike pitches that he's taken, 20 have been called a strike in 2010 (18.5%). Comparing that to 2009, only 25 of 235 were called strikes (10.6%). If that 10.6% rate had continued into 2010, then that could have lopped as many as 12 strike-outs from McLouth's total. (Obviously if he takes a 1-2 pitch and it's called a ball instead of a strike, he could still strike out swinging on the next pitch.) Take 12 K's away from his 46, and his strike-out rate would be right there at his career level (20%). He's also been willing to take a few more two-strike pitches overall, which has further served to increase his strike-out totals. Perhaps pitchers have caught on that McLouth won't chase too much, since they seem more willing to leave the ball in the zone with two strikes. That rate has shot up, from 16% to 26% of pitches, and it's irrespective of the number of balls in the count (it's an across the board increase). Add in the fact that he's getting to a two-strike count more often - 47% of his plate appearances in his career and 45% last year, but over 50%* this year - and you can see how not putting the ball in play is keeping his batting average down.
* Yeah that's only a difference of 6-10 plate appearances, but the difference in strike-outs, as noted above, is only 12 as well.
Then there's also the BABIP issue; McLouth's sits at .221 even though his career rate is .279. And his HR/FB rate, which is at just 5.5% compared to 10.6% career. If one were to adjust his batting line to account for these two factors - setting each at the career marks instead of the 2009 ones - then McLouth could just as well be hitting .213/.326/.374. That's still not good, but it's an over .100 OPS improvement over where he now sits. On top of that, if he were walking and striking out at the rates implied by how often he swings and makes contact - based on the work done by Jeff Zimmerman - then his walk rate would go down a little from its currently very good 12.7% to a still above average 10.2%, and his strike-out rate would fall quite a bit to around 16%. That would put his line at .251/.340/.423 - just a hop, skip, and a jump away from his .252/.338/.439 career line.
That's not to say that McLouth is only the victim of bad luck, but there's certainly reason to think he can bounce back - especially if he makes some adjustments. While he may not reach the heights of 2008, when he hit 26 home runs and posted a 3.7 fWAR season, I think an above average bat and average to above overall production is a fair expectation going forward (and ZiPS agree, projecting a .249/.343/.425 line for the rest of the season). That's, of course, assuming there aren't any ongoing ramifications from the concussion that's had McLouth on the DL since June 11th.