David Lough and Opportunity


Jun 26, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals right fielder David Lough (7) celebrates at home plate after scoring the game winning run in the tenth inning of the game against the Atlanta Braves at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Opportunities come out of nowhere sometimes. For David Lough, his 2013 could be much different if not for Mike Trout.

Back in May, Trout drove a ball deep to center. With no hope to catch it, Jarrod Dyson still went after the ball, hopped up the fence, but landed wrong on the way down and sprained his ankle. At the time, the Royals were starting to platoon Dyson with Jeff Francoeur, which gave Lough a chance to come up and play.

And since, he’s not only seen Francoeur be released, but, after Dyson’s return, Lough’s been the biggest beneficiary of playing time.

Lough reached Omaha in 2010 and played well from the start. He showed great contact ability, had a little bit of pop in his bat, and had speed. Scouting reports had him lined up as a potential regular, but more likely a 4th outfielder. At the time, David DeJesus was still with the Royals and Lough looked like a similar player: balanced in many areas, but no standout tool. Fast enough to play some center or steal bases, but not fast enough to be elite in those situations. Enough power to put up decent extra base hit numbers, but no sort of middle of the order hitter. Good contact, but not a batting champion.

Jack of all trades, master of none.

Those kinds of players have value, especially for good teams with plenty of star power, and DeJesus was very good for years, but miscast as a star. Back then, he was just about all the Royals had in the lean years.

Fast forward to today and Lough is hitting .294/.310/.447 in 174 plate appearances. His 106 OPS+ has him performing just a bit better than an average outfielder, and to watch him, he’s shown that he can hit the inside pitch. In his three double (and one home run) game against the Twins, all four hits were on inside pitches. He took a fastball from C.C. Sabathia and put it into the second deck of Yankee Stadium.

His performance so far is refreshing since few other Royals have stepped up this year. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler are hitting below their standard years (still better than average, though), Eric Hosmer has yet to reach his lofty potential, and Salvador Perez, while productive, could probably be doing more in the slugging department. Everyone else has been disappointing most of the time.

But Lough has been a nice surprise. Big picture, he’s more suited to be a fourth outfielder, but that he’s holding his own everyday suggests that he can be more of a player than most have thought. My idea of Lough has usually been that he can be a new Mitch Maier – not a guy you’d want in there every day, but in case of an injury he can hang with everyone else.

I like the DeJesus comparison on the surface, though there are some complications. Lough’s first taste of full-time work is coming at the age of 27. By that point, DeJesus had already amassed 1500 plate appearances and was in the middle of a stretch from 2005 to 2010 where his OPS+ was below 100 just once (and happened to be his age 27 season when he had a 91 OPS+). That’s important because while Lough’s performing similarly to DeJesus’s career line (.280/.354/.420/.773; 106 OPS+) this year, he doesn’t have the benefit of DeJesus’s track record. One season of above average performance is great; five out of six is much more reliable, though.

Similar skillsets. Similar builds (both are listed at 5’11” with DeJesus holding ten pounds over Lough). Similar numbers. Very similar players. Had Lough gotten more time starting in 2011, perhaps he would have been able to have more seasons like this one to make the comparison more tidy. Still, if he’s 90% of DeJesus, he can get some good years in after his late start.

June 11, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals teammates congratulate right fielder David Lough (7) after hitting his first Major League home run against the Detroit Tigers during the fifth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

For Lough, he’s always been there but never been the focal point. First Alex Gordon gets moved to the outfield, then the Royals signed Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera. Then Jarrod Dyson emerged. Then the Royals traded for Lorenzo Cain. All the while, Wil Myers was rising up the ranks and Lough was always floating there, somewhere in between. Good enough to be considered (he was ranked in Baseball America’s top 30 Royals prospects each year from 2009 to 2013), but he’s never jumped into the tier of players to watch.

That might have worked against him in a way. With no standout tools, he just floats there and that’s easy to take for granted. Players can get labeled pretty easily and once an organization has an idea of what a player is before they hit the big leagues, it’s tough to break that distinction. Mike Aviles ran into it and it finally took a monstrous 2008 Omaha performance to get him to the big leagues. Irving Falu‘s fought the same battle, so while Yuniesky Betancourt was taking up space, Falu was hiding in Omaha. Today, Anthony Seratelli‘s up against it as well. He’s shown that he might be a decent on base guy with sneaky power and lots of versatility, but because he’s older than most prospects, he stays in the minors.

I think those are situations where the Royals are missing opportunities to sneak some value into their roster. It’s very possible that Falu, Seratelli, and Lough won’t amount to much but capable bench guys for a couple of years, but taking the time to see what they can do in 2009 or 2010 when the team wasn’t close to contending could have some benefits. You get to find out if you have a real player or not, if nothing else. Lough’s showing what can happen if a player just gets the opportunity.

Want some startling figures?

Baseball-Reference WAR

FanGraphs WAR

Lough’s defense is factoring into that total heavily. In B-R’s calculation, he gets 0.7 WAR from his offense and 0.8 from his defense (and 0.2 from baserunning). On the FanGraphs side, he’s getting a lot of defensive value from his range and from his four outfield assists. Lough’s good enough to hold his own out there, but he’s still prone to misplays and over a longer term, the defensive numbers probably don’t hold up as well.

FanGraphs calculates his 1.3 WAR as being worth $6.7 million. Lough makes the league minimum. That’s surplus value. Think about if Falu could have been a 1 WAR player while playing over Betancourt last year (and making league minimum) or if Seratelli could have played a month at third while Moustakas worked on his issues in Omaha in May. A small market team has to squeeze what value they can out of their players and they haven’t done it. Circumstances have led them to using Lough on a nearly everyday basis, and it’s paying off right now.

But Lough’s been dismissed enough to this point. I’ll keep an eye on him and see how it plays out.