McLouth's new outlook yielding confidence
Braves center fielder determined to rebound from poor season
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- While Bill Peterson watched Nate McLouth take swings in the batting cages at Champion Stadium on Thursday, he saw some of the same determination and excitement that was visible when he was introduced to McLouth at age 16.
Over the 13 years that have followed, Peterson's association with McLouth has evolved from being a coach and hitting instructor to being a best friend. And Peterson has been thrilled to see his former pupil distance himself from last summer's nightmare and begin showing signs that he truly does love playing baseball again.
"When I get texts and calls from him talking baseball, I know things are great," Peterson said. "He does baseball every day. I just try to be a friend. But he has opened up to me a little bit about some of his success this spring and how confident he feels and how comfortable he is. As a friend, it just makes me happy for him."
With Opening Day just one week away, McLouth is no longer the player who hit just .190 and endured a month in the Minor Leagues last year. Having allowed his long blond hair to grow, the former All-Star outfielder arrived in camp with a new look and outlook. It appears he will exit camp with the confidence that he lost even before last year's regular season arrived.
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"I don't think I've ever been this excited to come into a season," said McLouth, who brought a .304 (14-for-46) average with just three strikeouts into Friday's Grapefruit League game against the Phillies.
Talking about excitement is certainly not something McLouth was saying at this time last year, when he was only experiencing the beginning of his offensive struggles. He hit just .118 (6-for-51) with 16 strikeouts during Spring Training, getting just one hit in his first 38 at-bats.
When the season began and he hit .175 in April, McLouth couldn't ignore the fact that his troubles weren't simply limited to Spring Training. Since being acquired from the Pirates the previous June, he had not been the player both he and his new organization envisioned he would be.
While hitting .276 with 26 homers and 23 stolen bases for Pittsburgh in 2008, McLouth played with a stress-free manner. Once he was introduced to a new organization for the first time in his career, he put too much undue pressure on himself and lost the confidence that he possessed while rising through the Bucs' Minor League system as a 25th-round selection in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft.
"I think that's pretty fair to say," McLouth said. "I lost my aggressiveness for whatever reason. If I knew why and where and when, I think I could have corrected it a lot sooner. I think aggressiveness kind of comes with confidence and vice versa, confidence breeds aggressiveness. When you feel confident in the box, you're going to be aggressive."
As McLouth continued to lose confidence and seemingly would go to the plate hoping to at least draw a walk, teammates and coaches began telling him that he needed to be more aggressive.
"It was difficult, because you had seen him work so hard in the offseason to prepare," said Peterson, who enjoyed a stellar collegiate career at Bristol (Tenn.) University. "I think it was important to him to come to a new team and show them what kind of player he was."
As hard as he tried not to do so, McLouth was taking on the appearance of a much more passive offensive threat.
When McLouth enjoyed his All-Star season with the Pirates in 2008, he put the ball in play with 48 percent of his swings. Last year, he did so with just 40 percent of his swings.
His discipline appeared to be similar as he took 60.8 percent of the pitches he saw in 2008 and 60 percent last year. But too often, it appeared he was less aggressive in hitter's counts.
McLouth looked at just 48.9 percent of the pitches thrown to him with a 2-0 count in 2008. With the same count, he swung at 69.5 percent of the pitches that weren't ruled a ball.
Last year, McLouth looked at 62 percent of the pitches thrown to him with a 2-0 count. With the same count, he swung at just 42.2 percent of the pitches that weren't ruled a ball.
"The last day of the season last year, I said, 'I'm done, I'm going to forget it,'" McLouth said. "'I'm not going to pretend this season didn't happen, but I'm going to learn from it and it's going to make me better.'"
After concluding a season that was interrupted for more than a month by a concussion he suffered in an early-June collision with teammate Jason Heyward, McLouth drove home and changed his offseason approach. The previous winter, he hit six times a week with Peterson from the middle of November through the start of Spring Training.
While getting married and following his beloved Michigan Wolverines, McLouth allowed himself to escape the baseball scene for an extended stretch this past winter. He waited until the first week of January to begin hitting with Peterson, who owns an indoor hitting facility in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"When we started there in January, he said, 'Hey, Petey. I just want to be a little more aggressive with my approach,'" Peterson said. "Truthfully, we didn't talk about any other mechanics or techniques. He was just so much more relaxed and confident."
McLouth's confidence has been strengthened as he's worked with the Braves' new hitting coach, Larry Parrish, and Lee Elia, who joined the organization this year to serve as a hitting instructor for both Minor Leaguers and Major Leaguers.
"Working with Larry and Lee Elia -- I'm telling you what, I really like him," McLouth said. "Working with those guys has been great. We've talked about approach and anything but mechanics."
Instead of making a drastic change to his stance, McLouth has learned he simply needed to regain his approach, and more important, the confidence that his teammates have been glad to see continue to grow since camp began.
"He's a guy that has confidence, that we really needed to have confidence," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.