Hot Stove: Cold, hard data is McLouth's best friend

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There is no more objective guide to Major League Baseball than the annual Bill James Handbook, a detailed compendium of way-inside-the-game numbers. No fluff, no conflicting observations from scouts and no talk of promise or potential. Just the facts.

Which National League pitcher threw the highest percentage of sliders?

Ian Snell, at 35.5 percent.

Who hit the shortest average home run?

Craig Biggio, at 360 feet, with Jack Wilson's averaging only a foot longer.

The Handbook can be found all about the Pirates' offices, including that of general manager Neal Huntington, a longtime admirer of James' work. And, if that ends up having any kind of influence on personnel or strategic decisions, expect the primary beneficiary to be Nate McLouth.

Consider that a player the Pirates' evaluators long have labeled no better than a fourth outfielder:

• Took 61.6 percent of the pitches he saw, eighth-highest in the league. Barry Bonds' 67.2 was tops.

• Had the league's highest success rate in stealing bases, 95.7 percent. He stole 22 of 23, a year after stealing 10 of 11.

• Scored 38 percent of the time he reached base, 11th-highest in the league. One reason: He went from first base to third on a single 3 of 7 times.

• Had the league's ninth-best on-base percentage, .360, when leading off.

• Had the best on-base plus slugging percentage -- the statistician's dream offensive measurement -- of any player in the majors when seeing a slider, at 1.242.

Granted, most of the above numbers came in a two-month window in which McLouth was an everyday player. But their importance probably cannot be overstated on a team in which the ability to hit offspeed pitches, patience at the plate and baserunning fundamentals were sorely lacking. The Handbook determined, for example, that the Pirates were the majors' fifth-worst team on the basepaths.

The Pirates' stated plan for McLouth -- after much internal discussion -- is to have him and Nyjer Morgan duel for starting duty in center field. But be sure that one reason management has looked to trade Jason Bay and Xavier Nady is that it is not at all frightened by having McLouth play a corner spot.

The Handbook will back them.

Buried treasure

• The Pirates are talking to free-agent starter Runelvys Hernandez about returning. Hernandez, 29, pitched for Kansas City from 2002-06 and made four starts for Class AAA Indianapolis last season -- 8.47 ERA -- but sought his release in September after the Pirates did not add him to the 25-man roster.

• One reason to believe MLB's anti-drug program will become more effective: According to Pirates president Frank Coonelly, who was MLB's chief legal counsel before taking his current post, in 2008 commissioner Bud Selig for the first time will be able to suspend players in the Dominican Republic who test positive. Such enforcement is not universal across Latin America.

• The Pirates do not yet have a list of commitments for their voluntary minicamp for pitchers and catchers -- Jan. 8-11 in Bradenton, Fla. -- but it is expected that participation will be extensive. The return of minicamp after a one-year hiatus was Huntington's wish, mostly because he wants pitchers to feel warm and comfortable while long-tossing.

Franquelis Osoria, a strong bullpen candidate, had a superb season in the Dominican Winter League, which wrapped up for his team last weekend: He had a 0.84 ERA in 14 appearances, and opponents batted .150.

• Remarkable but true: Jose Castillo not only could be asked to take Miguel Cabrera's place as Florida's third baseman but also could be the Marlins' third-highest paid player with base pay in the range of $1 million. Only starter Andrew Miller ($1.35 million) and closer Kevin Gregg (probably $2 million through arbitration) are certain to make more.

• More on the marketing front: The gold 'P' on the Pirates' cap suddenly is taking the place of the angry, bearded pirate on just about all of the team's printed matter.

• Only 46 days until pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at .


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