mclouth bunt

This may be hard to believe, but I am sometimes wrong. Not just occasionally, but pretty often. It comes with the territory of being, uh, whatever I am. Really, though, anyone who reads baseball blogs shouldn’t be surprised by this. One need not descend to the banality of “can’t predict ball” sloganeering to understand the situation. The name of this column was inspired by Bill James‘ phrase “measuring the fog,” which he coined in the context of discussing the task of sabermetrics. That is, the job of sabermetrics (“the search for objective knowledge about baseball”) is not just to figure out what we know about baseball, but to delineate what we do not know: “the fog.”

So I am accustomed to being wrong, even if admitting it is not necessarily fun. I pay a lot of attention to projections (and make no apologies for doing so) while keeping in mind that they are more reliable than personal intuition as a whole, on an individual level they will still miss a fair bit. Those who produce respected projections understand this, and those who use them should, too. If a player does much better or worse than he is projected to do, whether by a respected projection or by my own projection or analysis, it is not big deal. Win some, lose some. Sometimes, I go out of my way to praise or mock a player, and he does pretty much the opposite. Sometimes it is predictable, sometimes it is not. But some of them just sting.

If I wrote a post for everything I was wrong about prior to the season, I would never post anything else. For today, I will just take three cases in which things went very differently than I thought they would, three players that I (somewhat publicly, in two cases) singled out prior to the season as likely to be very good or bad, and have gone the other way, making me look, well, just like any other fallible human being. Or an idiot, depending on hour perspective.

Surprisingly Good

Back in January of 2012, when I had just started writing for Getting Blanked, I wrote a piece that puzzled over the directionless Colorado Rockies. I feel like the overall gist of the piece was right on, and still is, as the Rockies are again not (really) contending and did not do anything that really improved their long- or short-term chance this year.

One thing I did do in the piece, however, was take a shot at the three-year, $31.5 million deal they gave to Michael Cuddyer during that off-season. Cuddyer was a decent player, but he obviously seemed to be in decline during his last couple of years in Minnesota. He was entering his thirties, he never walked all that much, his power was poor, and his lack of range in the outfield was increasingly funny (something a National League team would really want to take into account). The team traded Seth Smith, who would have been much cheaper and (seemingly) almost as good.

During 2012, I felt vindicated on the Cuddyer score. Sure, he hit for better power than he had in years on his way to a .260/.317/.489 line, but that was really not all that impressive for a Rockies hitter, and adjusted, it was just a 101 wRC+, not good for a poor corner outfielder. Even more foreboding for the future of the contract, he only played in 101 games due to multiple DL stints. Although I did not go out of my way to rip the contract yet again, it may have been because I felt pretty safe writing Cuddyer off.

D’oh. In 2013, Cuddyer is not only healthy hitting for as much power as ever, but everything else is going well for him at the plate as he currently sports a .329/.397/.564 line, good for a 151 wRC+, awesome even in Colorado, and the best mark of his career by far (124 wRC+ in 2009 for the Twins being his previous high). Being healthy probably has something to do with it, but he has also cut his strikeouts down and upped his walks a bit.

Now, there is a fair bit of randomness to this, as Cuddyer has a career-high .365 BABIP this year, easily his career high. He is producing beyond his true offensive talent level. Moreover, he is still a lousy defender in the outfield. And, yes, the Rockies should probably have sold high when he was an All-Star this season.

That said, Cuddyer has been very good for the Rockies this year, and the contract hardly looks horrible on its own. In my face.

Surprisingly Terrible

I do not think it is any secret that I am a Royals fan. I would hope, though, that I do not seem like too much of a homer when it comes to evaluating their front office or players (except, perhaps, when it comes to Alex Gordon). Thus, during this past off-season when I wrote that relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera might be better than Greg Holland and that the two might be the best one-two relief punch in baseball, whatever it was, it was not fanboyism.

Who didn’t like Herrera going into this season? Purely for entertainment purposes, a 5’9 pitcher — whose fastball regularly hit 100 (last April, one was clocked at 102.8), whose changeup was awesome and celebrated — is tough to beat.

Beyond just aesthetics, Herrera’s performance was measurably awesome in his 2012 rookie debut. His strikeout rate, if not what one would expect given his stuff, was still good at 22.4 percent, and he had good control (6.1 percent walk rate). Combine that with a decided groundball tendency (55.5 percent in 2012) and a changeup which makes him effective against lefties, and you have the makings of a stud reliever. I had many doubts about the Royals’ attempt at contention in 2013, but the back of the bullpen was not one of them.

Fast forward to now: Greg Holland made the All-Star team (I was right about him, at least) with a nearly Kimbrel-esque performance this year. Herrera, on the other hand, was pulled in the eighth inning last night for Just Another Guy Aaron Crow, and it was clearly the right call. Herrera has been sent down and recalled multiple times this year. Early in the season, when Holland had a few hiccups, people were calling for Herrera to take his place as the closer. Now, Royals fans get angry when Herrera comes in during the eighth. People expect home runs.

Who can blame them? Herrera has a 4.89 ERA in 2013, and a 5.27 FIP. Gopher-itis is clearly the affliction, as Herrera sports an incredible 28.1 percent home run per fly ball rate. I suppose the 3.20 xFIP should be a consolation. Still, while home run rates fluctuate, and Herrera’s is not a fly ball pitcher (although the ground ball tendency is not present this year), this is ugly. He just looks ugly. He has not been able to control his change, and is throwing it less often, and the fastball, while still fast, seems to be straighter. Some of them seem to be grooved for the home run stroke.

Yes, relievers are volatie, but that is different than saying that I should have seen this coming. Stuff is complicated. Talking to a friend with high-level pitching and coaching experience, the change up is a “feel” pitch that can come and go, and once it goes, is hard to recover. Herrera may also have changed his arm angle a bit for some reason (perhaps to make his occasional curve ball better), and that is making his fastball more Farnsworthian than it used to be.

Whatever he is (and maybe he will get it straightened out next year), Herrera has been one of the worst relievers in the league – far from being one of the best as I thought he expected. Yes, I’m a genius.

Surprisingly Useful

The Orioles were a great story last year, as they outplayed their Pythagorean record (and their true talent) on their way to a shocking playoff berth. Yeah, they were better than expected, but it really seemed like a one year thing. Now they are having another great season. In both 2012 and this year, an acquisition few expected to make much of a difference did. In 2012, this once-great player seemed to revive his major-league career, even if most understandably expected regression. In 2013, though, he not only did not fall back, but became even better. I’m sure you know the Orioles hitter who I’m talking about: Nate McLouth.

It is not as if McLouth has never been good before. After having a decent half season for the Pirates in 2007, the small center fielder really grabbed attention in 2008 when he hit .276/.356/.497, including a a surprising 26 home runs. Neither McLouth’s minor league track record or small frame had prepared many for that. McLouth was a pretty poor defender in center field, but his hitting and baserunning made up for it at that point. After the season the Pirates bought out his arbitration years for cheap and got a club option, too. It was a nice contract for the then-rebuilding team.

McLouth got off to another good start for the Pirates in 2009 when he was suddenly traded to Atlanta. It may have upset some people but, even then, it made sense. The Pirates rebuilding process was going to be long and painful, probably would not peak until McLouth was gone or nearly so (which seems prophetic now). Why not try and sell high? This deal looked like a bust for Pittsburgh for a while, and may well be: Gorky Hernandez remains in the minors, and Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke have had brief stretches of usefulness (color me skeptical of Locke’s performance this season).

For Atlanta, though, things went awry quite quickly. McLouth was pretty good for them for the rest of 2009, though his power did drop off a fair bit. However, in 2010 things totally fell apart for McLouth. His fielding was worse than ever, but more significantly, although his plate discipline remained decent, his ability to drive the ball was gone: .190/.298/.322 (70 wRC+). McLouth was not much better in 2011, hitting .228/.344/.333 (92 wRC+).

To no one’s surprise, Atlanta did not pick up his option. McLouth was signed as a free agent by Pittsburgh prior to 2012, but after 62 plate appearances in which McLouth did nothing, they let him go at the end of may. The Orioes signed McLouth a few days later, and he gave then 236 surprisingly good plate appearances while playing left field: .268/.342/.435 (111 wRC+). His plate discipline was pretty much intact, he hit for a bit of pop, he stole 12 bases, and left field was a better spot for him than center. It was a nice little performance. Still, there was little reason for optimism going into 2013. McLouth turned 31 after the 2012 season, had not been any good in years, had dealt with injury issues during his time in Atlanta, and, despite the apparent lack of obvious “luck” in 2012, well, just about anything can happen in 200 or so plate appearances.

Thus, when the Orioles brought him back, I laughed privately. I went on an Orioles podcast and mocked it. I did not say he was useless, just that he was a below-average bat who could not play center field and would keep the Orioles from exploring other options if they really used him. Maybe he would make sense on a bad team as a fourth outfielder if they had two other guys who could play center, but I did not see the point.

Oops. McLouth has not been outstanding this season, but he has been very good — above average for sure. The Orioles have been smart, making sure he does not see too many lefties (although he has not been platooned too much), but McLouth has been more than just a part-timer. Over 404 plate appearances so far, he is hitting .283/.353/.417 (112 wRC+). His power is still only average at best, but he can still run the bases like a madman, stealing 25 so far this year without getting caught. McLouth has been excellent as a leadoff man for Baltimore, as he also adds value by taking the extra base. He is already at 2.2 fWAR, 2.2 rWAR, and 2.1 WARP in 2013. Not bad for $2 million.

I am as 99.99999 percent sure McLouth has no idea who I am, but it seems that he went out of his way to make me look foolish. It is not just that the Orioles basically took very little risk bringing him back, although $2 million is more than just a league minimum opportunity cost blocker. They clearly saw something more there that other teams (McLouth did not re-sign right away) did not.

The main difference between McLouth now and in previous years has been his strikeout rate. Other than in 2008, his strikeout rate usually hovered between 16 and 20 percent. It was at 20 percent even last year. This year, it is down to almost 12 percent. McLouth’s power is not what it was during his good years in Pittsburgh, but he has made up for it by putting the ball into play more often.

Nate McLouth may not be the surprise player getting all the attention on the Orioles. But while Chris Davis deserves the plaudits he as received, spare a moment for the little left fielder in his early 30s who has revived his career. I wish I had before the season. It is more fun being wrong about McLouth than about Herrera, though.