Hot Trot: The Time Is Now

We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to announce that, as Evan takes a breather, Sam Killay of RaysTalk takes the wheel for the day.

The feud between the Red Sox and Yankees knows no bounds. Where will it all end? I mean, after over 80 years of on-field warfare and closer encounters of the third (and every other) kind, baseball’s biggest rivalry only continues to intensify in recent years, with the bickering extending as far the front office PR room. The enmity between the two antagonistic teams has often been described as epic but lately has captivated the mind & heart of the nation, exploding beyond the borders of any one distinct genre, certainly beyond the traditional realm of the sports pages, and even reaching into cultural niches as diverse as science fiction and horror.

So I guess it was no surprise when Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez resorted to WWF tactics after Bronson Arroyo beaned ARod in late July. And I guess it was no surprise last October when the Red Sox and Yankees met in the ALCS for the second consecutive year and, despite all odds, took the series to the full 7 games — also for the second consecutive year. And following the extension of that same zany thread of logic, I guess it even made a kind of sense when the Red Sox achieved the impossible by overcoming a 0-3 deficit to take the pennant.

And while we’re on the subject of the improbable & impossible, why not throw a Red Sox World Series victory into the mix, too?

Aw, what the heck, let’s dream big, why not make it a World Series sweep?

Yeah it’s been a wild couple of years, hasn’t it? But even after all that madness, I hafta admit that I really was surprised when even the bitter cold winds of winter didn’t succeed in snuffing the flames that the past baseball season ignited. C’mon, admit it, the last thing you expect to read about when you open up the sports page in February — February, mind you — is the latest fuel on the fire in the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry.

But that’s the way it was last month, with ARod, Trot Nixon, and Curt Schilling trading verbal blows through the media in the dead of winter. On the pages of the Globe (free article) and Times (free reg. required), it was All Rivalry, All the Time. And not just a few offhand remarks, either. No, you get the feeling that if these confrontations were taking place on the field, the soundtrack to this drama could only consist of one thing: chin music. And of course, if you didn’t catch these rumblings in the mainstream news, there was plenty of give-and-take to enjoy in the blogosphere.

Somewhere in that mess, I don’t remember where I saw it, but somewhere in all of that midwinter melodrama, somebody caught my attention with a comment about Trot Nixon. Since I don’t remember where the comment was made, and since I can’t restate it verbatim, the best I can do for you is summarize its content, which was essentially this: Alex Rodriguez is the best player in the game, which entitles him to talk a little trash when he feels moved to do so, but who is Trot Nixon except a streaky hitter, an inconsistent player, a guy who can’t be relied upon against lefty pitching, and now an injury risk, too? Who is Trot Nixon?

I’m not gonna respond to the portions of that comment which involve ARod because, honestly, I’ve ceased to care, which is my own way of saying that the man just isn’t worth my time & energy. But the Nixon comments really stung me. And got me thinking. Wondering. Nixon is a living legend in Boston, the original Dirt Dog, but how does the rest of the baseball world perceive him? When they look at Nixon’s career, is this what they see? Just a lot of unproven potential?

A few facts, for perspective.

Nixon is the longest-tenured member of the Red Sox’ organization, drafted by Boston in ’93, first reaching the big leagues in ’96, and an everyday Red Sock since ’99. In just shy of 2, 500 MLB at-bats Nixon has hit 112 homeruns (despite playing all his home games in a difficult park for LHH’s) and has posted a very nice career line of .280/.367/.496. He also fields the expansive RF of Fenway Park and has a reputation as a very good fielder, which appears to be deserved. Nor is he a one-dimensional hitter. He has a career IsoD (Isolated Discipline=OBP minus AVG) of .087, with .050 being average and .10 being remarkable plate patience. He has good power, with a career IsoP (Isolated Power=SLG minus AVG) of .217, which while not quite at the elite level of, say, Manny Ramirez and his .285 IsoP, is still very good, roughly comparable to that of — for instance — Magglio Ordonez (.218), Moises Alou (.231), Reggie Sanders (.221), or Paul Konerko (.202). Nixon also has a career Secondary Average of .360, which is also quite good. Using the above players for comparison, Ordonez has a SecA of .317, Konerko of .296, Alou .330, and Sanders .362. For further perspective, Manny Ramirez has a career SecA of .441, and reigning AL MVP Vlad Guerrero a SecA of .378.

Since becoming a Boston regular in ’99, Nixon has averaged only 121.5 games played per season. Of course, that number is skewed by his injury-plagued 2004 season, in which he only managed to play 48 games. Between ’99 and ’03, Nixon averaged 136.2 games played per year — a much more respectable figure, especially when you consider his reputation as a LHH who can’t hit LHP, and the platooning that arises from this circumstance.

Among other minutiae, Nixon has been to the playoffs 4 times in his career. In 116 playoff at-bats, Trot has a line of .267/.344/.483. He has never logged 100 RBI or 30 homeruns in a single season, although he has come close to both — and might have reached both plateaus, had he not torn his quadriceps muscle late in 2003.

But then again, that’s part of the point, too. Nixon lost time in 2003 to the quad injury, then ended up missing three-quarters of 2004 with various compounded back injuries. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and has possibly seen his best years gone by him. And having him at his best in 2005 would mean a lot to the Red Sox as they embark on the defense of their first title in 86 years.

So as a ballplayer, who is Trot Nixon? Maybe it’s a good question for us to ask ourselves. Which Nixon shows up this year? The hospital-ward Nixon who played less than 50 games last year? Or the bustout Nixon who posted a surprise year in 2003, with a .974 OPS and .578 SLG, both figures representing almost a full point of improvement over Trot’s previous career highs? Or will it be the Nixon who inexplicably batted .256 in 2002?

If Trot Nixon is going to establish himself as a player, this is the year to do it. We managed to beat the Yanks last year without much help from Nixon, although he did contribute down the stretch and in the playoffs, including a pivotal performance with 3 doubles in Game 4 of the World Series, sealing the Red Sox’ game & series victories. But the Yankees loom large again in 2005. Indeed, with The Unit in the fold and former MVP Jason Giambi looking healthy, if anything, the Yanks appear more menacing than ever. And as for the Red Sox, we aren’t without our share of question marks in 2005.

But a big contribution from Nixon could go a long way to answering those questions. Ya stepped up in the playoffs, Trot, and we Red Sox fans know how dangerous a hitter you can be. Now you have to sustain that performance like you did in 2003 & prove yourself to the rest of the baseball world. Your career has been a succession of peaks & valleys, sometimes tantalizing, other times frustrating. You’re a cult hero in Boston, but we need to see numbers. The time is now.