Gifted with patience at the plate and all through his career, the Pirates' 'Mighty Mouse' is baseball's most productive center fielder
May 6, 2008 8:00 AM
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WASHINGTON -- Remember those fat, orange bats from childhood?
Nate McLouth had one at age 4 and, as his parents recall, was blessed with the coordination to whack his father's overhand offerings onto the roof of their single-story home in Whitehall, Mich.
But that was not the part Rick McLouth found most impressive.
"Nate would take pitches," the elder McLouth said. "Honestly, if he didn't like what I threw, he wouldn't even budge."
This might best explain why nobody, not Nate McLouth's family, not his high school coach, not any of his professional instructors, including those currently with the Pirates, can lay claim to that patient, sweet-swinging style that has made him one of the more compelling story lines early in this Major League Baseball season.
As Pirates hitting coach Don Long put it, "That approach he has, that's not something you teach."
Game: Pirates vs. San Francisco Giants, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (0-2, 4.79) vs. LHP Jonathan Sanchez (2-1, 3.48).
Key matchup: The Pirates' catchers vs. the baserunners. San Francisco's 38 steals, led by Eugenio Velez's seven, are most in Major League Baseball.
Of note: Having seven rookies was supposed to doom these Giants to 100 losses, but their young pitching -- Sanchez, 25, has 40 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings -- has sparked a modest 8-7 run. Old friend Jose Castillo leads the team with 109 at-bats but has a .239 average.
Nor is it something anyone would want to diminish, but that is precisely what the team's previous management did, almost universally, from the time McLouth was drafted in 2000: He was labeled too small at 5 feet 11 to hit for power, not fast enough to be a center fielder.
"Fourth outfielder, at best," they would say, again and again.
And yet ...
In his first week of pro ball in 2001, he batted .423 with a home run.
In 2002, he struck out once every 9.44 plate appearances in Class A and walked nearly as often, establishing uncommon command of the zone, an element never stressed by previous management.
In 2003, he was a Class A All-Star.
In 2004, he led the Class AA Eastern League in hits and runs.
In 2005, he was batting .297 in Class AAA.
This most assuredly was not someone sneaking up the ladder.
It was not until McLouth was summoned to Pittsburgh late that season, actually, that any difficulty was encountered. And there would be plenty of it: He batted .257 with little pop for the rest of 2005, then .233 the following year as a reserve.
What went wrong?
The answer seems clear: Jim Tracy, upon taking over as manager in 2006, was set on Chris Duffy as his center fielder and would start McLouth -- "a nice piece to have," Tracy would call him -- only when the Pirates faced a tough left-hander, essentially taking the bullets for a sagging Duffy. It was a tall order for a veteran, much less a rookie.
McLouth's role changed little under Tracy to start last season, and it was not until Duffy was injured and Rajai Davis was traded that he finally got his chance in August.
"This is what I've been waiting for," McLouth would say at the time.
All he did was club seven home runs with 17 RBIs that month.
Only to go right back to the bench.
Nyjer Morgan, a September call-up, quickly captivated Tracy by making highlight-reel catches in center. Tracy not only benched McLouth but also wondered publicly how much better the Pirates might have been all season if Morgan had been promoted sooner.
McLouth, never one to complain publicly, did seek counsel back home.
Mighty impressiveWhere the Pirates' Nate McLouth ranks among all center fielders in Major League Baseball:
"It wasn't easy for him, and we talked about it," Rick McLouth said. "We were all pulling for Nyjer, and we still do. But for Nate to go right back to the bench there just didn't seem fair. It made him wonder what he had to do."
The key, as it played out, was turned by owner Bob Nutting in firing the Pirates' entire management team, Tracy included, by year's end.
New general manager Neal Huntington, as part of an exhaustive evaluation of all players over the winter, assigned a video assistant to splice together footage of every defensive play McLouth and Morgan made in 2007. And not just fly balls.
The determination, one that might have surprised more observers than Tracy a few months ago, was that McLouth was, in the words of one team official, "just as good, maybe better."
Huntington also analyzed all players' hitting tendencies, particularly at PNC Park, where the Pirates never had taken strides toward building a home-field advantage. The result: Three of McLouth's five home runs at PNC Park in 2007 landed above the nearby Clemente Wall in right field, and many that he hit in other stadiums went in the same direction.
McLouth heard about that over the offseason.
"It meant so much to me," he said. "All I've ever asked is that someone pays attention to what I do for you on a daily basis. I'm never going to look all that flashy. But I'll get the job done."
The Pirates entered spring training officially declaring center field open to a duel, guarding against a McLouth injury, but it soon became obvious he was their choice.
The patience, and not just what McLouth was showing at the plate, had paid off.
"This is it," McLouth said, shortly before the team headed for Atlanta to open the season. "This is my chance."
McLouth is the oldest of three boys, growing up in a tight family in quiet, quaint Whitehall, population 2,800. And, being the first, he always was the explorer.
"Nate loved everything outdoors, anywhere he could be where he was running around," his mother, Pam, recalled. "And he never walked. He always ran. Sometimes, you didn't know where he was, and you'd find him down by the creek chasing frogs."
Those feet kept moving as he grew, too. He dabbled in football and basketball, having grown up in a community that reveres both so long as they are played in a University of Michigan uniform. But his first passion, hobby and everything else was baseball, for no special reason, really, other than that he always excelled at it.
"It's not that I didn't like the other things," he said. "But I wasn't fast enough for football and was too short for basketball. Besides, I just loved baseball."
Still, so much of McLouth's career has been about being the second choice.
He batted .514 as a senior and went 51 for 51 in steals, but still was not a consensus top choice as Michigan's best amateur: He shared the state's Mr. Baseball honors and was honorable mention on USA Today's All-America list.
"The thing that struck you about Nate wasn't just his talent," said Warren Zweigle, his coach at Whitehall High School. "It was the way he applied himself, how hard he worked to learn and get better at everything."
And yet ...
"I can't tell you how many scouts, dozens of them, would come to his games and say, 'Nice player. Not big enough.' I actually started to question that myself."
Soon after, McLouth committed to Michigan, fulfilling his and his parents' dream scenario.
"We wanted to be one of those families that drove around to all the Big Ten cities to watch our boy play ball," Rick McLouth said.
That in mind, he advised major-league teams that, if they thought about drafting his son when he became eligible in 2000, it would take the equivalent of a third-round bonus to keep him from college. Most teams took that seriously, and 24 rounds went by without his name being called.
The Pirates, in the midst of their best -- and most aggressive -- drafting period of the past decade under former scouting director Mickey White, took McLouth in the 25th, even though they knew they lacked the general pool of money to sign him.
They offered $100,000, and it was flatly rejected despite it being miles above 25th-round money.
"We knew it was going to be tough," White recalled this spring. "But we wanted this player and, then, we got a little lucky."
The Pirates learned they would not be able to sign a fourth-round pick, so that money could be shifted to McLouth. Duane Gustavson, the scout handling the signing, met with the McLouths for five hours at their home and offered $500,000, plus full college tuition if he attends someday.
The deal was done.
Being second choice, this one time, was just fine.
"But you know what? It was going to take something like that," Nate said. "I wasn't bluffing about college."
Neither were his parents. Pam McLouth left the room in tears.
INDIANAPOLIS (16-16) lost at Richmond, 3-2. RHP Ty Taubenheim (2-5, 6.61) allowed three runs and seven hits in seven innings. RHP T.J. Beam (2.79) pitched one scoreless inning of relief. RF Steve Pearce (.258) went 2 for 4 with a sacrifice and a steal. LF Kevin Thompson (.345) went 1 for 4 with a double, a walk and a steal. CF Andrew McCutchen (.290) went 1 for 5 to extend his on-base streak to 27 games. 3B Neil Walker (.193) went 0 for 5.
ALTOONA (12-18) lost at Akron, 9-4. RHP Yoslan Herrera (1-3, 3.30) allowed one unearned run and five hits in five innings. He struck out two and walked two. RF Brad Corley (.316) went 3 for 5 with two doubles and an RBI. 1B Jason Delaney (.324) hit his third home run, a two-run shot, and went 1 for 4.
LYNCHBURG (13-17) beat Winston-Salem, 7-6. LHP Tony Watson (3-3, 3.12) allowed two runs and six hits in 5 1/3 innings. 3B Jim Negrych (.414) went 4 for 4 with two RBIs. C Steve Lerud (.274) went 2 for 2 with two doubles, a walk and an RBI. RF Jamie Romak (.357) went 2 for 5 with an RBI.
HICKORY (15-17) lost to Charleston, 5-4. RHP Brad Clapp (0-2, 2.00) allowed two runs and seven hits in four innings. LF Keanon Simon (.276) went 1 for 3 with a double, two walks and an RBI.
"I felt like we were sending Nate to the wolves," she said. "We come from a small, pretty conservative town, and we didn't know where this was going. I saw a Michigan professor at a convenience store a couple days later, and I turned away so he didn't see me."
As it turns out, the parents are living that aspect of their dream now, too: Younger sons Jake, 21, and Christopher, 22, are at Michigan.
In addition to justifying new management's video study with exemplary defense, McLouth, 26, has the best offensive numbers in the majors among center fielders: His average is .323, his on-base percentage .411, his home runs at seven -- same as that one month Tracy let him play last season -- and his RBIs at 25.
The latter figure floors his teammates, coming out of the leadoff spot.
"Amazing," left fielder Jason Bay said.
The rest, though, has surprised no one associated with the Pirates, save, perhaps, those in management no longer employed by the team. The weekend before the season, a clubhouse poll revealed a strong sentiment that McLouth would be their breakout player this summer.
"You watch," shortstop Jack Wilson said then. "It's going to be all about Nate."
Wilson took to calling him, "Mighty Mouse McLouth," and it has managed to stick.
The main reason for such confidence, apart from a widely held respect for McLouth's work ethic and all-baseball intensity, is what many teammates see as a slump-proof swing.
"Everything is very compact, very consistent," Long said. "Because of that, because he can keep the bat back that extra second, then get it through the zone in a hurry and maintain his power."
The key, as was the case with that orange bat, is the patience. McLouth is seeing a team-high 4.5 pitches per plate appearance.
"Still the same approach," Zweigle said. "And with those quick hands, he still can turn on anybody's fastball."
That is not all that remains unchanged.
McLouth behaves no differently now, when surrounded by cameras as happened April 14 in Los Angeles after that ninth-inning, three-run winning blast, than he did as a baby-faced prospect. He is in a state of near-anxiety about his status and is perpetually fidgety about finding ways to improve.
He also remains engaged in numerous charitable functions, having worked with Pirates president Frank Coonelly to form the new "Lucky 13" club based on his uniform. And he still helps the Whitehall program, having recently sent Zweigle 200 autographed baseball cards for the team to sell.
"First-class kid," Zweigle said.
Above all, even now, McLouth focuses on the group and not the individual, no matter the topic at hand.
"I called Nate the morning after that homer in L.A.," his agent, Mike Nicotera said. "He was on ESPN's 'Cold Pizza' that day and got all these headlines, and I ask him how that feels. He says back to me, 'Mike, we've won four in a row!' That's Nate."
"Between how Nate is at the plate and how patient he's been in waiting for his chance ... I really don't know where he got that from," Rick McLouth said. "No one else in the family is really like that. He just stays at such an even keel."
The larger question might be whether McLouth's level of performance will change. And, when it comes to center fielders in Pittsburgh, that subject always is fair game: As most locals can cite ruefully, the list of those to play the position since Andy Van Slyke's departure include Jermaine Allensworth, Tike Redman, Adrian Brown, and Duffy, all of whom had promising spurts.
Some call it a curse.
But not in Whitehall, apparently.
"A curse?" Pam McLouth said. "There's something way bigger than that curse that we believe in. That's our son out there. We've always known what he can do, and everyone else is just finding out."