Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.
Is Nate McLouth elite or simply a star among stiffs?
Ah, the perils of being one of the few stars on a bad baseball team.
Such is the life for Nate McLouth, one of fantasy baseball's biggest breakthroughs from a year ago, and a player hailed as a borderline 30/30 candidate by some and a one-year wonder by others. Such divergent opinion on a player leads to unpredictability in bidding (or selecting) at the draft table, but I'm taking a firm stance on Mr. McLouth:
He's a budding star.
Now, I know I'm generalizing my opinion. To be more specific, I'm not foolish enough to think McLouth is the next Grady Sizemore, not by any means. They're simply not the same type of player. But McLouth has the skills, the grit and the opportunity to remain an extremely productive player in 2009, at the very least a candidate to repeat his No. 31 ranking on the 2008 Player Rater. Certainly he warrants better than the No. 53 spot he's being drafted in on average in ESPN live drafts thus far.
Not that I'm surprised that people are down on McLouth. As I said a few weeks back in my Texas Rangers "30 Questions" about Josh Hamilton's second-half fade, when a red-hot starter cools somewhat, slashing more than 100 points off his OPS from half to half, people tend to remember that more than they do the strong start. It's natural; it's fresher in your memory and therefore feels more representative of the player's true talent.
The problem with that method of thinking is that it fails to account for the possibility that the player, having earned national exposure for the first time, might have worn down somewhat under the added pressure. Additionally, opposing pitchers would certainly have been more apt to challenge McLouth to attempt to find his weaknesses. Remember, baseball is very much a give-and-take game and all about adjustments; hitter adjusts to pitcher, pitcher adjusts to hitter, hitter to pitcher and so on.
It's what results from that process that matters, and besides, if you look at what McLouth did in the second half of 2008, you can't really classify it as disappointing. It just looks that way if you compare it to what was a massive calendar year that dated from All-Star break 2007 to All-Star break 2008:
157 G, .276 BA, 31 HR, 95 RBI, 27 SB, 113 R, .360 OBP, .527 SLG
Now, project his 2008 second-half statistics to the same 157 games played:
.270 BA, 18 HR, 73 RBI, 30 SB, 111 R, .355 OBP, .430 SLG
So the truth is that McLouth wasn't really much less successful in batting average, or on-base percentage, in the final two-plus months of last season than he was the calendar year before that. All of his drop-off reared its ugly head in the form of a 97-point slugging-percentage drop, and before that causes you to push the panic button, be aware that McLouth's home run-to-fly ball percentage in the first set of numbers was 12.8; in the latter it was 8.6. The league average is generally about 10 percent, so it could be said that McLouth was actually a little luckier than normal in the home run department in the first set, and a little unluckier than normal in the second set.
Nothing in McLouth's batting average on balls in play flashes a warning sign, either. In the first set his number was .286, and in the second it was .300, neither of them above the league average, which is usually in the .300-.305 range. In fact, he was right around where he should have been after the All-Star break last year, while his number between the 2007 and 2008 breaks might have registered low only because he hit more fly balls -- 50.3 percent of his batted balls. (Simple logic dictates that a fly ball stands a lesser chance at dropping in for a hit than a ground ball, which in turn stands a lesser chance than does a line drive.)
Speaking of those line drives, if you examine McLouth's second half of 2008 looking for tasty nuggets, here's one: His line-drive percentage actually increased from the calendar year preceding it, from 16.8 to 20.7. It's only a small bump, sure, and might merely have been a product of a smaller sample size, but returning to the point about adjustments, it could bode well for a player who enters 2009 in his prime at age 27, one many thought tailed off significantly late last year.
The other thing to like about McLouth's second half: Even when he wasn't carrying fantasy teams by belting unexpected home runs late in the year, he was stealing bases at a consistent, efficient rate. He was a perfect 12-for-12 in the category after the All-Star break, not to mention that overall he converted 21 consecutive attempts to finish the season and is now 57-for-62 lifetime in the category, or 91.9 percent, almost 10 percent higher than his career minor league success rate (82.5).
No wonder that, upon the conclusion of the season, rumors swirled that the Pirates might attempt to "sell high" on McLouth's "career year," with the New York media often suggesting the center field-challenged Yankees had interest. Turns out those rumors were indeed just that, as the Pirates were smart enough to keep McLouth for three more years and $15.75 million, buying out his arbitration years as well as an option on his first year of free agency in 2012. They knew what they had, and wisely locked him up.
That is exactly what fantasy owners should do, in the same fashion they might lock up a Curtis Granderson, statistically a somewhat comparable player in 2008.
No, that's not fantasy value to the level of the aforementioned Sizemore, a bona fide first-round, 30/30 caliber stud. But as a 25/25 candidate certain to rack up another 100-plus runs, McLouth actually isn't as far a cry from that as you might think.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.