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Settling the Nixon vs. Drew Debate

September 21, 2011

Every team incites a certain level of continuous discussion amongst their fanbase. Over the past few seasons one of the more frequent debates that I continue to hear amongst fans of the Boston Red Sox revolves around right field. Production from the position has been disappointing. The revolving door of players has been a source of frustration.

Most of these discussions, especially over the airwaves of WEEI sports radio here in Boston, ultimately center around two players: Trot Nixon, the tough-as-nails scrapper who held down right field from 1998 through 2006, and J.D. Drew, the never-lived-up-to-his-potential and oft-injured man who replaced him starting in 2007.

According to notes from Terry Francona’s pregame press conference last Friday, there are new injury concerns with Drew. Already on the DL with a shoulder impingement since July 19th, it would appear as though he’s hurt himself once again while on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Pawtucket. He suffered an avulsion fracture to his middle finger and now is coping with some neck pain. To most who have watched this team over the lifetime of Drew’s tenure in Boston this is merely more of the same. One has to wonder if this effectively ends his 2011 season and in turn, his Boston career.

So, with Drew’s Boston career coming to an end, it would seem to be the most appropriate timing to settle the great debate and determine which of these two players was the better right fielder.

A first round draft pick (#7 overall) in the 1993 Draft, Nixon worked slowly through the minor leagues, repeating both Double-A and Triple-A in his journey to the Major Leagues. Three consecutive seasons (1994-1996) he was ranked in the Top 50 MLB Prospects by Baseball America. While he wasn’t rushed, the expectations were high as Nixon took over the starting job entering the 1999 season. From 1999 through 2006 he had 3,797 plate appearances over 967 games, an average of 475 PA and 121 G per season.

Drew was also a first round draft pick – twice, technically – and made his MLB debut for the Cardinals just a few weeks after the 1998 Draft. He would immediately take over the bulk of the playing time in right field the following season and would occupy the position for the team until they traded him to the Braves following the 2004 season. Following a season in Atlanta and two in Los Angeles Drew would reach free agency, upon which he signed a five year contract to play for the Boston Red Sox. From 2007 through this season he had 2,364 plate appearances over 602 games, an average of 473 PA and 120 G per season.

As you may have noticed, the two players have nearly identical averages when it comes to plate appearances and games played per season. While Nixon’s time in Boston was longer (in terms of years, games, etc.), the similarity in playing time does open the door to view their statistical numbers on an even plane. So, let’s lay out the two players’ season averages side-by-side:

 

Nixon   Drew
.278 AVG .264
.367 OBP .370
.479 SLG .456
.846 OPS .826
116 OPS+ 115
68 R 68
113 H 106
25 2B 23
4 3B 3
17 HR 16
65 RBI 57
4 SB 3
2 CS 2
57 BB 67
77 SO 90

 

Across the board Nixon put up better numbers in every category with the exception of walks. However, the differences between the two are minimal. Remember, these are season averages for each player during their tenure with the Red Sox, not overall totals. So taking into consideration an equal amount of playing time it would seem initially that Nixon was the better player solely from a statistical standpoint. However, we know that the discussion must include more factors than a simple look at the two player’s season averages.

Defensively both players were strong fielders – so for the most part this part of the discussion is a moot point. The pair both displayed decent range and solid arms in right field. Some could argue that Nixon was the better fielder because he was a bit more fearless from a defensive standpoint. Nixon is remembered much more for his diving plays and tough-as-nails demeanor in the field. Drew has made his share of diving catches and crashes into the bullpen wall, but his injury plagued career has provided a much different reputation amongst fans.

Drew has long been known, especially by Boston fans, as being a little fragile. Every bump, bruise, or scratch seems to keep him out of the lineup. This trend has plagued Drew his entire career, not just his time in Boston. Yet, considering the amount of money he has been earning his inability to stay on the field has been a source of frustrations for Red Sox fans for much of the past five season. Ultimately this has been one of the most common catalysts for these Nixon vs. Drew discussions.

Using bWAR as part of these discussions, we can see that Nixon was worth roughly 20.5 wins, or 2.05 wins per season (he spent the better part of 10 seasons with the Red Sox). Drew has only been worth 13.2 wins, or 2.64 wins per season (over 5 seasons). From a bWAR standpoint it would seem as though Drew was the more valuable player. So let’s take this one step further.

According to his Baseball Reference page, Nixon earned roughly $27 Million during his time in Boston. Taking his 20.5 bWAR and his total earnings into consideration, Nixon was paid roughly $1.3 Million per win. Drew, on the other hand, will earn $70 Million over his time with the Red Sox, approximately $5.3 Million per win.

In the end, using bWAR gives us a different look depending on what angle we view the statistic from. Nixon had the highest total but Drew had the better season average. Yet, due to salary considerations, Drew was paid far more per win, thus negating some of the value he provided. It would seem that once again the discussion would seem to favor Nixon.

Other factors are much less significant. Drew made it to one All Star Game. Neither player ever garnered serious consideration for any year-end awards during their time in Boston. Both players were able to win the World Series with the Red Sox. Nixon hit .357/.400/.571 with 3 RBI in the 2004 sweep over the Cardinals. Drew hit .333/.412/.467 with 2 RBI in the 2007 win over the Rockies.

Like any comparative discussion, the end results are largely affected by how the information is presented. However, based on the above it would certainly seem as though Nixon was the more valuable player over the lifetime of his Boston Red Sox tenure. He was better, albeit it marginally, from an offensive standpoint over the course of an average season. Defensively he’s remembered for being more fearless. He certainly is remembered more favorably than Drew will be by Boston fans. And the numbers tell the story as well. Nixon was worth more wins at a lower organizational cost.

Right field for the Red Sox has not been consistently filled with a superstar type talent for quite some time, but over the past 15 seasons it would seem safe to say that the production has at least been relatively consistent  from a pure statistical standpoint. Yet, production has been slipping the past few seasons – as Drew isn’t the player Nixon was – and the fanbase of the Red Sox is growing increasingly tired of waiting for things to improve. Perhaps this offseason will begin to shed some light on the situation as we can finally put to bed this great debate.

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