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Nationals bolster bench by signing Nate McLouth

The Washington Nationals bench lacked firepower in 2013, but the addition of Nate McLouth could pay huge dividends.

Jason Miller

Friday was full of moves. Full of them. The Seattle Mariners fetched themselves Robinson Cano. The New York Yankees quickly responded by signing Carlos Beltran. The Boston Red Sox brought back Mike Napoli. And so on. There were more, but those are the notables.

And one that almost assuredly got lost in the Cano chaos: Nate McLouth signing with the Washington Nationals on a two-year, $10.75 million pact. On the surface, it’s just another "hoo-hum" signing. There’s no flash. The Nationals inked McLouth specifically to upgrade their bench, not re-engage an entire fanbase (I am indeed poking at Cano’s deal). It seems like a boring move, but let’s discuss it, because something tells me it’s not at all boring.

As for McLouth, he nabbed an even 100 wRC+ in 2013, his highest mark since 2009 -- that’s when he was a three-plus win player sporting Pirates’ black and yellow. In layman’s terms, he was pretty much a league average hitter. In exchange, the Baltimore Orioles got a 2.5-win player for just $2 million. Strictly confining ourselves to WAR and WAR only, 2.5 wins made McLouth baseball’s 13th-most valuable left fielder (200 minimum plate appearances). That puts him in the same neighborhood as Yoenis Cespedes and Gregor Blanco (I know, two exorbitantly different players).

Now, McLouth isn’t much of a power threat -- see his .141 ISO (.143 league average in 2013) and .323 wOBA (.315 league average). We’re not looking at a rare talent. But a rare talent isn’t what the Nationals had in mind in adding McLouth.

Before we get to McLouth’s specific impact on the Nationals, let’s dig a bit deeper into his 2013 campaign. I’ll keep going back to the refrain that it bordered on average (grabs your attention, right?), but on McLouth’s terms, it was a solid season that netted him a decent contract, which is worth some attention.

Consider the numbers below.

Year wRC+ wOBA WAR
2007 110 0.353 1.4
2008 121 0.364 3.5
2009 112 0.348 3.2
2010 70 0.282 -1.4
2011 92 0.307 0.1
2012 90 0.305 0.6

There are a handful of theories about McLouth’s turnaround. Getting consistent at-bats is high on that list, as he earned himself 593 plate appearances in 2013. Compare that to the mere 907 plate appearances he got over a three-year span (2010-2012, 302 average). There’s just something about getting consistent at-bats that spurs confidence and, thus, better production.

Of course, beyond the fact that the Orioles rotated a handful of nobodies in left field and couldn’t find a whiff of stability, McLouth’s at-bat totals didn’t just skyrocket because of his teammates. He made adjustments. He became a decent fixture in Baltimore’s lineup because he made some adjustments.

One of those adjustments was that he was far more disciplined. After totaling a 25.3 O-Swing% in 2012, he cut back on the free-swinging, lowering his O-Swing% to 21.8 in 2013. You can slice it how you want, but both marks are very good, way better than the league average, and if you add in the fact that he had a 77% O-Contact% (0.1 off his career-high, which he also compiled in 2008), you get a pretty good contact hitter. Over the span over 550-plus plate appearances, the benefits of even a slightly improved O-Swing% roll in.

And that’s what happened with McLouth, as his K% went from 20.5% in 2012 to 14.5% in 2013. He hasn’t struck out at a lower frequency since 2008. The walks weren’t quite as evident, and they’ve been going downhill. His BB%’s since 2010 go as followed: 11.5%, 13.7%, 9.1%, 8.9%. The latter two figures hover around the league average of 8.2%.

It’s incredibly hard to get the best of both worlds, though, unless you’re Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera. If I had a preference, though, fewer strikeouts, equaling more balls in play, is probably the better bet with someone like McLouth who’s a decent baserunner (13th-best BsR in baseball last year). Simply putting the ball in play opens the door for some other possibilities.

Really, we could go on all day with the speculation. But here’s one more important trend:

Year AVG With Two Strikes
2013 0.288
2012 0.228
2011 0.156
2010 0.152
2009 0.156
2008 0.192

Something does seem a bit fishy. McLouth took a huge leap in 2013, but he also took a huge leap from 2011 to 2012 without the same kind of results. That said, there does just seem to be something about the massive leap he took.

There is some real evidence to counter the doubts about this effect.

Time Period FB CB SL CH
2007-2012 0.188 0.148 0.141 0.129
2013 0.220 0.100 0.235 0.167

That’s improvement in three of the four main categories, with special attention on McLouth’s progression against sliders -- a devastating pitch against most lefties. While the .235 average doesn’t stand out, the nearly 100-point improvement does, especially since we’re dealing with stats put into the context of two strikes.

This next table is in all counts, against both lefties and righties. I started in 2010 because that’s when McLouth’s wRC+ plummeted to 70, rendering him a far below average hitter. McLouth improved in each of the four categories in 2013, especially against what used to be his nemesis--the slider.

Time Period FB CB SL CH
2010-2012 0.249 0.159 0.139 0.232
2013 0.250 0.220 0.286 0.308

It’s all starting to become clear where McLouth’s improvements stemmed from in 2013. He hit off-speed pitches better and set up with a more disciplined approach. It’s that simple.

Summing It Up

Yes, this is quite detailed the evaluation for a guy who’ll spend a large fraction of 2014 on the bench. The Nationals have Bryce Harper in left, Denard Span in center and Jayson Werth, the National League’s best offensive player by wRC+’s reckoning, in right. There’s no room for a regular starting spot, even if you want to point to the fact that McLouth had a better wRC+ than Span did in 2013. It’s hard to imagine that being a regular trend, though, given McLouth’s vagaries at the plate.

Of course, an injury could occur. It’s something I’m extremely hesitant to rule out. Really, really hesitant, given Harper’s aggressive nature on defense and on the base paths, Werth’s bleak injury track record and an aging Span.

Considering those factors, I’d say McLouth is almost guaranteed more than a handful of starts scattered around all three outfield positions. And if one of the three starters goes down for an extended period of time, Washington has a solid replacement in McLouth, as we’ve gone over in great detail. Not to mention that the Nationals bench could use a jolt. We could go off what their pinch hitters produced -- a .608 OPS, 17th-best in baseball. But it’s probably worthwhile to simply look at the raw numbers and names.

That would give us four outfielders who logged at least 150 plate appearances: Scott Hairston (68 wRC+, who had 174 plate appearances between the Cubs and Nationals), Steve Lombardozzi (67), Tyler Moore (64) and Roger Bernadina (42) make up that quartet. Nope, there isn’t an average one in bunch.

Lombardozzi got shipped to the Tigers in the Doug Fister trade, and Bernadina is as good as gone.

To oversimplify it: Washington’s bench could use some restructuring, and the addition of McLouth is very good start. Even if the Nats are done adding to the bench, they’re in a better position, especially if Hairston bounces back (realistic) and Danny Espinosa finds his power stroke (a little less realistic). A lot of "ifs," but a big weakness could become a big strength for the Nationals in 2014.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, and Brooks Baseball.

Jake Dal Porto is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and Golden Gate Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @TheJakeMan24.