So: Nate McLouth.
Ask Pirates and Braves fans about him and you'll get an assortment of curses. Those might be well deserved. As a Pirate, he hit .256/.334/.451 (.785 OPS) over 6 total years and 1741 PA, which is respectable enough. As a Brave, he hit a mere .229/.335/.364 (.699 OPS) over 3 years and 1005 PA, which is less so. Of course, the major problem that Pirates fans have with him is that when Pittsburgh brought him back to begin 2012, after a disappointing .677 OPS season with Atlanta in 2011, his line through 62 PA was .140/.210/.175 (.385 OPS), and the Pirates pretty much decided they'd had their fill of that by the end of the first month of the season. He was designated for assignment, bounced around the minors a bit, and found his way to the Baltimore Orioles. And that, in a nutshell, is why Braves and Pirates fans don't particularly care for him.
Because here is Nathan Richard McLouth's line as an Oriole going into Thursday's action: .285/.369/.450 (.819 OPS). That means the man the Pirates cut in April of 2012 for being an embarrassment to, well, the Pirates, has been the sixth-best left-fielder in baseball by OPS since the beginning of the 2012 season. And Pittsburgh and Atlanta fans would like an explanation, if at all possible.
There is one, or at least the beginning of one: Look at McLouth's injury history. It's a laundry list, really. He's had 15-day disabled list trips every year since 2009, culminating in a 60 day DL trip in 2011 for a sports hernia and then a foot contusion out of camp with Pittsburgh in 2012. His second foot contusion, actually, though that seems like the definition of a freak injury. With that many trips to the DL -- mostly for lower body injuries, but not always -- perhaps it was difficult for him to get into a rhythm or find his groove or, in more substantial, meaningful terms, stay in the lineup. But since arriving in Baltimore? Not a scratch. Never even day-to-day. If a man with good baseball skills whose injuries have all been minor touch-ups or freak incidents gets healthy and stays healthy, he can be a very valuable asset.
Generally speaking, though, players who have "freak incidents" or "minor touch-ups" multiple times per year aren't merely unlucky; they're just not durable. Professional baseball is littered with players who would've-could've-should've-didn't because they couldn't stay healthy. Yankees fans will recognize the names David Adams and, well before him, Christian Garcia (Nationals fans feel that particular pain now). They'll also recognize the name Eric Chavez, though it's really the Athletics that were hurt by his injuries. The Orioles have another leftfielder on the roster named Nolan Reimold whose entire career has been one running war against his own body; unfortunately, his body is probably going to win. The entire reason "There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect" exists as a baroque acronym is because of the horrible things competitively throwing baseballs does to young men's arms. A whole lot of guys never reach their ceilings -- and sometimes fall through their floors -- because their bodies just can't handle the unnatural strain of professional sports.
Health is, of course, a skill of sorts. That's the primary competitive argument against allowing the use of substances like human growth hormone that decrease recuperation time after injury (there are a bevy of medical reasons as well, of course): being healthy and durable is, itself, an ability. People in Baltimore and around baseball revere Cal Ripken, Jr., and call him the Iron Man because "coming to work every day" in professional sports is actually extremely difficult to do, especially across two decades. Just ask, oh, basically anyone involved. Ask the guys nursing three or four different injuries at once in September. Ask the guys who slide into a base wrong and suddenly have to sit out six to eight weeks while their ankle heals. Ask the guys -- and there are a lot of them -- getting cortisone shots as the season wears on. Regardless of what you think of that particular, "legal" steroid, it's a statement on durability that its use is so widespread while workout enhancers remain vilified. Health is a talent and a skill for a player just as much as his batting average or his on-base percentage, and that's where Baltimore's left fielder is overperforming most.
So that's the bet with Nate McLouth: is he actually able to keep his muscles from seizing up on him now? His quads from straining; his ankles from twisting the wrong way? Can he stay healthy? He has so far for Baltimore, and if he's able to pay the rest of this season forward at even his average career offensive level -- never mind anything approaching the torrid pace he's on now -- his past and playoff production will probably force even the unsentimental Dan Duquette to extend him longer than he'd prefer. After all, if he doesn't get paid in Baltimore, he'll get paid somewhere else … again, assuming he stays healthy and productive. Personally I'd love nothing more, but I don't disguise which team I'd prefer to win baseball games in the AL East, and the good news for the Orioles is he doesn't have to stay a star, just productive, for the Baltimore offense to keep rolling along.
But the past towers over the present always, especially in baseball, and it's hard to dismiss nine lower body injuries in the last four years as freak things that happened, are done with and are behind him. One hopes he'll be fine moving forward; it's reasonable to say no worthwhile sports fan hopes for injuries to any player, regardless of who he plays for, but all McLouth can do is hope. That's all any player can do, really: hope, and hit.