It's been a rough year for Nate McLouth.
The riddle of Nate McLouth is one that the Braves have had some trouble trying to solve since he was acquired from Pittsburgh. The player they thought they were getting is not the one who appeared in Atlanta. His OPS with the Braves is nearly .100 points lower than it was with the Pirates (.709 to .801). Of course, much of that drop in OPS is due to his horrible 2010 season, one in which he hit so poorly he was demoted to the minor leagues for over a month.
When McLouth was sent down to the minors in late July after returning from the disabled list for less than a week, he was hitting a lowly .168/.279/.265 -- pretty bad, and it certainly warranted minor league demotion. To McLouth's credit he took his demotion as a sign that he needed to fix some things in order to return to the Majors. He didn't complain, he didn't lope around the outfield, he took this as a time to work on the things that the organization wanted him to fix.
One of the big components of McLouth's game that needed fixing, aside from the broken mechanics of Nate's swing, was his confidence. McLouth, a humble ballplayer, does not attack every situation as he should, and that timidity lessens his production and defensive ability. This is one of the big things he worked on in the minors -- improving his aggressiveness.
McLouth also took the extra time in the minors to recover from an early June collision with Jason Heyward, where he suffered concussion-like symptoms for several weeks.
McLouth returned from the minors on the last day of August and restored his production to his career norms. He put up a .263/.358/.509 line the remainder of the season (better than his career line of .252/.337/.438), highlighted by an 11-for-33 stretch in his first 13 games back. Unfortunately, in his final ten games, McLouth returned to the lowly stats from earlier in the year, getting only four hits in his final 24 at-bats, and losing his starting job to Rick Ankiel for postseason games.
That final swoon could have just been a slump of normal occurrence that happens over the course of a baseball season, and hopefully not a return to the piss-poor McLouth we saw the first half of the season. All of this begs the question, "what can we expect from McLouth in 2011?" The answer is, "no one knows." It all started to go badly for Nate in spring training, when he started 1-for-22 with ten strikeouts through the first two weeks. All eyes will be back on him next year in spring training to see if he can pick up hits and limit his strikeouts early in camp. A hot start for Nate next spring will help his confidence for the whole season. Of course, another start like he had last year in spring training could do permanent damage to his psyche.
There's an argument to be made that McLouth is just regressing towards the kind of hitter he was in 2006 and 2007 when he struck out at a similar rate to how often he struck out in 2010. When we look back over his career, 2008 stands out as the one year that Nate performed well above his average production -- and parlayed that into a very nice contract the next offseason.
The Braves are on the hook for at least $7.75 million more in salary to McLouth (2011 salary plus 2012 buyout), so we seem to be stuck with him for at least another year. Perhaps with a possible free agent offseason looming, McLouth with raise his game in what could be the final year of his contract.