Friday, July 21, 2006

Hot to Trot?..........not

Is it time for the Red Sox to trade Trot Nixon? The mere utterance of this question is often perceived as sacrilegious by most Red Sox fans who worship the longtime right fielder. Trot Nixon has endeared himself to an entire generation of Sox fans with his hard-nosed performance and blue-collar approach to the game since he came up to the big club in what seems like a lifetime ago. He was a leader on Boston's first championship team in nearly a century, and has vocally commanded the clubhouse since the departure of Mo Vaughn. Boston, as blue collar a city as one will find, has been lucky to have Trot Nixon, and Trot, himself, should be proud that he was able to win over the fans in a city where baseball is paramount to family, friends, and often times, God.

That said, there comes a time when even such a perfect match runs its course, and parting ways becomes more beneficial to one side than continuing the relationship. While it may sound strange to argue that a team considered by many as a World Series favorite should be a "seller" at the upcoming trade deadline, it is my contention that the Red Sox are in the unique position of being able to improve their team for both the present and the future by trading away a single player now.

Trot's Impending Free Agency

Although I could, and would, contend that the Red Sox should trade Trot Nixon regardless of his contract situation, the fact that he is a free agent at the end of this year certainly weighs heavily in favor of a move. Currently Nixon makes 7.5 million per season, which is about market value for a player of his skill set. However, entering the unrestricted free agent market, Nixon stands to make at least that much money over the next 3-4 seasons. As I will discuss later, his overall performance has declined to the point where he is no longer worth this money. However, there are plenty of teams out there who would gladly pony up that kind of cash for a player with Nixon's demeanor and credentials. The Tigers are a team that immediately comes to mind because not only would Nixon improve their team, but he is a likeable player who ownership could easily market to the blue collar city of Detroit. The point is that if the Sox let Nixon go to free agency, there inevitably be a team willing to give him more money than they are, and they risk losing him for nothing.

Trot's Aforementioned Decline in Production

On it's face value, Nixon appears to be having one of his finer statistical seasons in 2006. His line of .302 (avg), .405 (OBP), and .435 (SLG) appears to illustrate a fairly productive player. In fact I was surprised when I contemplated his stat line, because I have watched every game this season and always felt that Trot was underperforming. When I delved deeper into the statistics, I discovered that my gut was right, and that his stats are incredibly misleading.

First and foremost, Trot Nixon's stats do have a weak link in his low slugging percentage so it seems prudent to start here. A .435 slugging percentage is below average for a corner outfielder and falls way below Nixon's career percentage of .484. Even more horrifying was the revelation that since 2003 (Nixon's career season) his slugging percentage has dropped in each successive year including 2006. This trend evidences the fact that Nixon has lost a substantial portion of his power and is becoming purely a singles hitter (if he hasn't already). Along these same lines, it is worth noting Nixon's sharp decline in extra base hits. This season only 26 of his hits have been for extra bases, with only 6 of them being HR. This means that in his 285 AB's in 2006, only roughly 9% of them end in an extra base hit. For a point of comparison, the trio of Aaron Rowand (10%), Juan Uribe (9.8%), and Orlando Cabrera (9.7%) are all outperforming Trot while playing more defensively demanding positions. Nixon's numbers would be even worse if he didn't play in one of the best hitter's parks in baseball. In fact, Fenway Park has saved Nixon as he is hitting .375 (avg), .430 (OBP), and .483 (SLG) at home, as compared to .267, .392, and .406 on the road. If not for Fenway, Trot might find his OPS under .800 on the season.

While that speaks to his power drain, what about his ability to get on base? It's true that Nixon has a very robust OBP this season, thanks in large part to an impressive 47:36 BB:K ratio. Even on the road he has gotten on based nearly 40% of the time. While these facts are indisputable, there are certain quirks contained in them that reduce Trot's overall value. While OBP is a critical statistic (the critical statistic in my opinion), there are several factors that determine whether a high OBP turns into run production. The most important factor is the situation in which the player gets on base (obviously a man reaching base with 0 outs has a better opportunity to score than a man reaching base with 2 outs). Given Trot's superb OBP numbers, one would expect that he would be an ideal player to lead off an inning for the Red Sox. However, in that situation Nixon's OBP drops by nearly 20 points (to .388), and his already borderline SLG percentage drops to an anemic .345. While .388 is still an outstanding OBP, these stats indicate that Nixon has been at his worst when put in the best position to get on base and score (0 outs). His .345 SLG indicates that when he does get on base, its only to first base, which drastically reduces the chance for run production (a leadoff double, for example, can score on two consecutive outs whereas a leadoff single/walk requires at least one hit to score). Really, Nixon has put up most of his numbers in the worst possible situation: nobody on and 1 or 2 outs (the chances of scoring in this situation are extremely low because it requires additional hits without making outs). In that situation Nixon's numbers appear Ruthian: .372 (avg), .462 (OBP), and .525 (SLG). While I do not intend to take anything away from these fantastic numbers, they do serve to skew his overall stats and lead an observer to believe he has been better and creating runs than he has in reality.

The Presence of Wily Mo Pena

While the previous arguments serve to lay a rather convincing foundation, the presence of Wily Mo Pena on the Red Sox roster should be the determinative factor. The Red Sox invested quite a bit in Wily Mo (trading away Bronson Arroyo), and I doubt they did so for him to be a 4th OF. Given the landscape of the Red Sox OF, right field appears to be the only spot available for Wily Mo to get regular AB's in the near future (Manny isn't going anywhere, and the Sox paid handsomely to acquire Crisp as well). While many fans may agree that Wily Mo's presence, more than anything, should be the determining factor in the Sox not resigning Nixon at the end of the season, why should the Sox wait? Taking into account the previous arguments documenting Nixon's offensive deficiencies, I contend that the Red Sox would be a better team right now with Wily Mo in the lineup than with Trot. In limited action this season, Wily Mo has put up a line of .330 (avg), .382 (OBP), and .496, besting Trot in every category except OBP. If we look at Wily Mo's splits, inserting him into the lineup looks even better. Trot is so clueless against left handed pitching that I need not waste words comparing the two in that situation. However, Wily Mo annihilates Nixon even against right-handers. Wily Mo has put up an other-worldly line of .412, .447, and .618 against right handed pitching this season, as compared with Nixon's .332, .425, .467. While Pena clearly would not maintain those numbers over a full season, they indicate enough of an ability to at least approximate Nixon's numbers while besting him in other areas (power, against lefties, etc.). Situationally Pena has proven Trot's superior as well hitting .409, .480, and .500 leading off an inning. He has even obliterated Trot's numbers with nobody on and 1 or 2 outs (not that it matters) by putting up a line of .375, .412, and .688 while scoring 3 runs (1 more than Nixon) in half of the at bats.

So given all of this evidence, the million dollar question becomes (1) whether Theo could get value for Trot, and (2) whether he'd have the guts to trade away one of the team's most popular home grown players. While the first question remains unanswered, Theo proved he has the proverbial cajones to pull the trigger on this exact move by trading away the equally revered and home grown Nomar Garciaparra while his team was on its way towards winning its first World Series since 1918. If the value is there, Theo should be listening.

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