The Great Nate McLouth Tommy Hanson Debate

In this day and of instant gratification with just about everything, it comes as no surprise that instant conclusions are all the rage after the first week of the Major League Baseball season.

In general, these conclusions are simply panic-stricken fans making irrational, sometimes even idiotic, claims based on less than five percent of the season.

A word to the wise; chill out.

The baseball season is a long one, and as Tony LaRussa once said, “Great baseball players who have a bad week are still great baseball players”. Rushing to judgement is often a sure-fire way to make yourself look silly come July, and being the guy who once let go of Cliff Lee a long time ago, I know how this works.

However, this is not to say it’s always too early to feel confident in your conclusion about a player.

For the most part, all one needs to do is simply look at a players past before making ridiculous claims about how a player either a) needs to be traded immediately for a bag of popcorn, or b) is headed to the All-Star game.

When a player that has a track record of being an elite player gets off to an amazing start in the season, one can feel rather confident that their numbers at the end of the year will likely keep on pace with what has typically been the result.

However, when a player without a proven track record gets off to a heart, before suggesting they’ve suddenly uncovered something new and are set to bounce back with a great season, or suddenly found their groove, one must seriously consider scaling back the level of expectations placed upon a player. You might want to hold off on the all-star talk for a few weeks.

On the flip side of that very coin, when a player with a solid track record gets off to a slow start, it might be a good idea to consider what this player has done in the past before demanding this player be sent packing.

I bring this up because two names in particular seem to create a dividing line among Braves fans. These two have been lightning rods early in this 2011 Braves fans.

On one side, you have the camp that believes Nate McLouth is going to round out into a solid contributor to what they feel is a championship caliber club. They feel that McLouth will revert back to the hitter he was with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008 and be a solid piece of the Braves lineup before the season is over.

Then you have those who have zero confidence in McLouth and would probably prefer to see Matt Young manning center field for the Braves.

 

This image of an exasperated Nate McLouth bears a striking resemblance to how many fans feel as well

 

 

With Tommy Hanson, it’s somewhat of the opposite. You have the sector of fans who feel is rather less than stellar start is an indication that the pitcher just doesn’t have it, and that the Braves should part ways with the youngster while he still has value.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those that feel Hanson still has the makings of an ace, and that his 2010 season was actually pretty solid, and that he will more than adequately add to the pitching staff of a club expecting to go to the World Series. Their belief is that his struggles early in the season are minor, perhaps just coincidental, and nothing to be alarmed about.

Here’s where the two arguments differ though, and why in one player’s case, the gloom and doom is probably correct, while in the others, the glass empty is pure insanity at this point time.

Everyone, including yours truly, is waiting on, and yearning for, the Nate McLouth of 2008 to show up one day and starting being a power and speed threat for the Braves lineup.

However, there is a faction of people who simply no longer believe it’s going to happen. And as much as they’d like to be wrong, and as much as perhaps those on the other side of the fence wish to disagree, the numbers say they are right.

Consider for instance that the average big league player strikes out 20.7% of his times to the plate. The bottom tenth percentile come in striking out at a clip of 27.5%, or worse.

McLouth has twice in the past four seasons has twice been over 23%. In 2009 his number for the entire season was 19.5%, a bit better than the league average. But I think it is indeed worth noting that it went from 17.3% to 20.6% once he became a member of the Atlanta Braves.

The high strikeout percentage isn’t that big of a deal if a guy is still drawing a lot of walks, and hitting for power.

McLouth has only once seen his base on balls percentage climb into double digits. So, maybe he’s offering something in the power department, right?

Well, aside from three terrific months in 2008, no, not at all. He slugged .497 in 2008, which has turned out to be .038 points higher than his second best season. In fact, he’s seen his slugging percentage drop to .436, and then a dismal .322 last season.

Let’s look at that 2008 season itself a little more closely too. It’s already established that his 2008 season was a career year, but a closer look tells us that it was more the product of a career three months.

McLouth’s OPS before the all-star break was .899, a very, very fine number, and worthy of his all-star bid, as were his 19 home runs and 33 doubles.

However, somewhere over the course of the summer, pitchers began to figure him out. That or the real Nate McLouth emerged. McLouth would hit just 7 home runs the rest of the way, and collect only 13 doubles while seeing his OPS drop all the way  to .781.

Over the final two months of the year he struck out in roughly 18% of his plate appearances, a good deal higher than the 12% mark he displayed during the seasons first three months.

In all actuality, the hopes people have for Nate McLouth are basically centered around the months of April, May, and July of 2008. McLouth, in those three months posted an OPS of .900 or greater. Here’s the problem, only one other time in his career has he managed to do this.

McLouth set career highs in 2008 for home runs and doubles, and the difference between his 46 doubles in 2008 and his second best year in terms of two baggers is really staggering, as his second highest output was 27.

McLouth did indeed get off to pretty good start with the Pirates in 2009, but it wasn’t quite up to the level of play he had reached in 2008. However, once he was traded to the Braves, his production at the plate quickly took a turn for the worse.

You look at his stat line from 2008 with 152 games played (.256, .356, .497, 46 2B and 26 HR) and compare it to what he’s done in 172 games as a Brave (.228, .329, .375, 33 2B and 17 HR) , you see why the downward trend can’t be expected to cease.

Beyond that, McLouth doesn’t offer much by way of speed on the bases, or defensive help in center field.

He’s only stolen 19 bases as a Brave, and been caught 9 times. A conversion of rate of barely above 66% is terrible, especially for a guy getting on base as infrequently as he is.

Perhaps if McLouth wasn't spending so much time looking lost in the field, his offensive inadequacies would be forgiven

 

In the field, his range is limited and pedestrian, and he doesn’t do much with his arm to hold base runners, or even attempt to throw them out at times. In fact, his defense has steadily declined since becoming a Brave. It has declined so much so that in 2010 McLouth was in the bottom tenth percentile of all fielders in baseball according to UZR.

Weak offense can be accepted if you play premier defense at the game’s most pivotal defensive positions (catcher, shortstop, center field). However, when you combine offense that fails to be above average with defense that is among the worst in baseball, what you get is a serious problem when filling out your lineup card.

McLouth fans long for him to return to what he did in 2008 with the Pirates. The bad news is that there is simply nothing to indicate that he will.

With Tommy Hanson though, just the opposite holds true.

Yes, Tommy Hanson has struggled out of the gate, although his performance against a very good offensive team in Milwaukee wasn’t exactly the stuff of Vicente Padilla.

However, it hasn’t stopped people from saying Hanson needs to be traded while he has value. Some have gone so far as to suggest Hanson was actually “bad” in 2010, that it’s been a steady digression for the young right hander.

Sometimes I wonder if people are watching the same game I am.

Or maybe they just aren’t watching them all. Apparently the only three games that a great many people saw Hanson pitch last year were his three worst outings of the year, and arguably of his young career.

Never mind the fact that in his 31 other starts last year Hanson posted a 2.34 ERA (would be good for 3rd in the NL) and a WHIP of 1.073 (would have been for fourth in the NL). I don’t really know about the rest of you, but if you’re going to tell me I can have numbers like that from a 23, or 24-year-old kid for 31 outings, I’ll take them all day, any day, every day. Without question. Anyone who wouldn’t should probably find another sport to follow, or in the very least quit expecting everyone to be Bob Gibson.

I understand when Hanson was bad last year, which wasn’t that often, he was really bad. But what seems to have been forgotten is that when he was good, which was quite often, he was very, very good.

Have people really already forgotten how good this kid is?

 

I’ve heard more than one person say that Hanson wasn’t as good last year as he was his rookie season. This sort of ludicrous statement can only come one of two ways. Either the only games they watched last year were those few disastrous starts, or, the only numbers they look at for a pitcher is the W-L record, with a little glance at ERA.

The problem is, people point to his apparent decline in 2010 as proof that his 2011 struggles are even more of a sign that he will never be a front line pitcher, and he needs to be dealt while he still offers value.

Well to begin to refute this absurd line of thinking, one should first look to see just how “bad” he really was in 2010, and how much worse he was than in 2009.

One of the first things people point out was the decrease in strikeouts. These people probably forget that for a pitcher to be most effective, pitching a lot of innings is something managers and fans of teams that want to win place a lot of value on. Taking five pitches to strike a guy out is far less efficient than inducing a ground ball after two or three pitches.

So yes, his K/9 ratio did decrease from 8.2 to 7.7. However, what is completely forgotten and ignored by his critics is that he also decreased his BB/9 ratio by a 50% better margin. His K:BB ratio actually increased from just 2.52 to 3.09. Not only that, also saw his HR/9 average go from .70 to .62.

Now, I’m not sure if you’re completely aware of how baseball works, but when a pitcher faces a batter, there are, for the most part (rare instances such as catchers interference, or a 3rd strike getting away aside), there are three possible outcomes that a pitcher, and a pitcher alone, is in complete control of. He can issue a walk, strike the hitter out, or allow a home run.

So, I’m thinking that if a guy is is increasing his strike out to walk ratio, while decreasing the number of home runs he allows, he’s probably pitching better.

Oh, sure, his ERA goes up, but ERA is highly fielder dependent. And please don’t start in with how ERA accounts for errors. It does NOT account for the range and skill, or even mental acuity of the fielders in charge of turning batted balls into outs.

Hanson’s FIP (Fielder independent Pitching) actually dropped in 2010. In other words, if Hanson had the typical average major league defense behind him in both 2009 and 2010, his ERA would have dropped in the 2010 season.

ERA skews numbers two ways, it can be made to be higher than it should be for pitchers with poor defenses, while making pitchers who benefit from great defense behind them appear to be world beaters, not taking into much account how good the pitcher is actually pitching.

Hanson managed to increase his ground ball percentage in 2010, while also decreasing the number of line drives hit against him . Yet, the average on balls in play against him went up. Usually, the correlation between such events works the opposite, in Hanson’s case it didn’t. For that, you can attribute some of that to the defense behind him.

It is forgotten also that Hanson, in 2010, in 25 of his 34 starts allowed 2 earned runs or less. You don’t think that’s pitching well? Yikes.

So yes, Hanson hasn’t exactly been brilliant in his TWO starts to begin the year. I think however his track record has shown that more often than not, he will be, and he’s getting better.

But I wouldn’t want anything like the actual numbers to fool you.

So, yes, you can indeed take something from a players first week, but not a players first week alone. Sometimes the first week is only the continuation of a troubling trend that is possibly years in the making. Sometimes though, it’s just a blip in a strong career that just so happened to come in the first week of April.

Talk to me in July, and I’m willing to bet that most will have completely forgotten their disdain for Tommy Hanson, while if Nate McLouth is still in the lineup, there will be much anguish in Braves country.

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