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“Nixon defeats Dewey!”

by Rob Neyer

Yes, that headline is annoyingly obscure, and I wouldn’t blame you at all if 1) you don’t find it amusing, or 2) you just don’t get it. So let’s just forget I ever came up with something so lame, and focus on what writers call the “meat” of this essay . . .

In the book, I selected Trot Nixon as the best defensive right fielder in Red Sox history.

Yes, ahead of Harry Hooper. And yes, even ahead of Dwight Evans, who won eight Gold Gloves; among American League right fielders, only Al Kaline (ten) has more. More to the point, Evans (eight) won eight more Gold Gloves than Nixon (zero) has. So how in hell could I argue that Trot Nixon’s a better right fielder than The Great Dwight Evans?

I didn’t mention this in the book, but here I’ll give you the two words that compelled me to rate Nixon higher than Evans . . .

Win Shares.

Over the course of his career, Evans, purely as a fielder earned roughly 2.8 Win Shares per 1000 innings. For a right fielder, that’s pretty good (for a number of obvious reasons, right fielders generally don’t get as many Win Shares as center fielders).

But through the 2000 season — as far as my data when I was writing the book — Trot Nixon had earned 3.7 Win Shares per 1000 innings, which is simply outstanding, better than most center fielders.

No, Win Shares aren’t perfect and I generally avoided relying on Win Shares to the exclusion of all else. But when I realized that Nixon enjoyed something like a 33-percent edge over Evans, I figured I should at least check to see if it were possible that Nixon is, indeed, better than Evans.

And what I found made me think that maybe it wasn’t so far-fetched, after all.

One shorthand method for evaluating the defensive abilities of a corner outfielder is checking to see how many games he played a center field.

In a long career, Evans played thirty-two games in center field, and some of those games were partials; according to Retrosheet, Evans’s action in center totaled 181 innings, equivalent to roughly twenty games.

Meanwhile, Nixon, in a significantly shorter career, has seen plenty of action in center field. In 2001, with Carl Everett out of action or gimpy for much of the season, Nixon started 67 games in center; in his career, he’s started 79 games there, with 11 other appearances. How did Nixon fare in center? According to Mat Olkin, writing in The Scouting Notebook 2002, “When Carl Everett went down, Nixon even shifted from right field to center without missing a beat.

But how good is Nixon in right field? Here’s Olkin again, writing a year later in the same book:

Though Nixon’s natural speed is unspectacular, he makes the most of it in every way. With good reads and all-out hustle, he covers Fenway’s cavernous right field very well . . . Some right fielders have a strong arm; Nixon has one but also anticipates where the throw should go in every situation. . .

So — I theorized — while it’s obvious that Evans threw brilliantly and got good jumps, he was not particularly fast. And it struck me as reasonable to guess that while Nixon doesn’t throw quite as well as Evans did, Nixon does run at least a little better and might get slightly better jumps than Evans. If all of this were true, then it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Nixon’s actually the better right fielder.

And then it all came crashing down. In the course of writing this article, I asked Win Shares co-author Jim Henzler for updated Win Shares for Nixon, the stuff I already had plus 2001 and 2002.

The results? Trot Nixon has tumbled, at least according to Win Shares. Jim computed 3.70 Win Shares per 1000 innings through 2000, but just 2.68 Win Shares per 1000 innings since 2000. Add everything together, and Nixon’s new career number is 3.1 Win shares per 1000 innings. Still better than Evans, but not really worth mentioning, especially considering that Evans’s career figure includes his decline phase.

So where does that leave yours truly? If you ask me at the ballpark, I’ll give you a response that includes a mild expletive. But if somebody on the radio asks me how the hell I could rate Nixon above Evans, I’ll tell them all about Trot’s instincts, and his speed, and all those games in center field, and . . .

Postscript: After reading the above, Mickey Litchman dropped me an e-mail on this subject, and I thought it was worth printing here…


Rob,

Good article about Trot Nixon! As I’m sure you know, Win Shares is not very good at evaluating defense. As I’m sure you also know, Win Shares in general is designed more to “evaluate” actual performance rather than ability, which although related are not the same thing. In other words, Win Shares is better at answering questions like “Who had the greatest contribution to their team or created the highest value to their team, rather than who was the ‘best’ (hitter or fielder), in terms of theoretical contribution or value to their team, which is essentially the same thing as who you would rather have on your team or who would most likely provide the greatest value to a hypothetical team or a team in the future.

Anyway, the principal reason why defensive Win Shares is not a good evaluator of defensive ability is that any defensive “metric” that does not use play by play data is necessarily not very good. I suppose it is OK to use defensive Win Shares to compare one player to another as long as one keeps in mind that the result of the comparison does not have a high degree of certainty or confidence attached to it. Sort of like comparing two players’ batting averages. Although the one with the higher BA can be stated as the better of the two players if we knew nothing else about wither player, our level of certainty in that result would be low.

In any case, as you probably also know, the best metric for evaluating fielders is my Ultimate Zone Rating, at least in my very biased opinion. According to Nixon’s 1999-2002 UZR “ratings” (runs above or below the average right fielder), he is indeed a great fielder. In fact, his four-year average UZR is +23 runs per 162 games, which is fantastic for a right fielder. If we had UZR ratings for all right fielders ever, that +23 over 387 games could easily rank in the top 10 or 20 of all time, and certainly in any list of the top right fielders in Red Sox history.

Of course, because it is based on “only” 387 games, his “true” UZR rating is probably somewhere around 18-20, after we regress that sample UZR. Still great, though.

Unfortunately, his arm rating, according to my data, is well below average, which belies the information in your article. Keep in mind that my “arm ratings” are very reliable and accurate (basically, they rarely lie), as they are based on the percentage of runners that advance one or two bases or get thrown out trying to advance on the percentage all of the various advancement opportunities, etc. Nixon’s “arm runs” for ’99-’02 are a composite -4, which is very bad as arm ratings go. It is extremely unlikely that he has even an average arm, and it’s very likely that his arm is terrible.

As far as his “progression” or decline since 2000 (according to Win Shares) . . . One most year-to-year patterns for offensive and defensive metrics are illusions (they are basically random fluctuations), so they should almost never be paid attention to, at least as far as ability goes. It is true that a player’s defensive skills decline almost from the get-go for all positions other than first base, but the non-critical defensive positions (the ones not up the middle) decline less rapidly than the up-the-middle positions. In any case, Nixon’s year to year UZR ratings (per 162 games) for defense and arm are:

      UZ  Arm
1999  18   -5
2000  30   +2
2001  22   -7
2002  21   -6

So, even if we paid any attention to year-to-year patterns, there is no declining pattern in Nixon’s UZR or arm ratings.

Just thought I would give you some additional thoughts and data on the Nixon thing. Take care.

Very cool, thanks. Two questions:

  1. Can I run this as a postcript to the article?
  2. Couldn’t the arm rating be subject to a park influence? It seems to me that if any “skill” would actually fall in line with our subjective impressions, it would be a player’s throwing ability (Bo Jackson notwithstanding).

cheers,
rob

And Mickey’s considerate response:

 

1. Of course!

2. Yes, my arm ratings include “park adjustments.” The only park where it makes a huge difference is in Colorado, where it is extremely difficult (15 percent more diffucult) to throw runners out or prevent them from taking the extra base, presumably because the outfielders play so deep.

Fenway has an “arm park factor” of .98, which means that it is slightly more difficult to advance, presumably due to the left fielder playing much shallower than in an average stadium. In fact, the arm park factor for left field at Fenway is .90, and in RF it’s 1.09. I should use separate arm PF’s for each OF position, of course, but alas I only use one composite OF arm park factor for all positions, which means that the PF I use for Nixon, which is the .98, should be the 1.09. That means that I am, indeed, underrating Nixon’s arm.

So let me redo his arm rating using the new RF park factor at Fenway (I am using 1.05 rather than 1.09, as I always regress my sample park factors to take into account sample error. Even thought the 10-year sample RF arm PF at Fenway is 1.09, it is likely that the true factor is closer to 1.00 and that the 1.09 is somewhat the result of random fluctuation, as there is nothing extraordinary about RF at Fenway to “justify” a true RF arm PF of 1.09) . . .

Well, I reran his arm runs, and using the new park factor doesn’t make much difference. His new ’99-’02 arm linear weights per 162 games are:

99....-4
00....+2
01....-5
02....-6

So again, it looks like his arm is indeed not very good.

Mickey