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Battles: Right Field

Posted By Cliff Corcoran On February 24, 2009 @ 8:37 pm In Cliff Corcoran | Comments Disabled

Xavier Nady Nick Swisher
Age (DOB) 30 (11/14/78) 28 (11/25/80)
Height – Wt 6’2″ – 215 6’0″ – 215
Bat/Throw R/R S/L
ML career (PA) .280/.335/.458 (2,434) .244/.354/.451 (2,512)
mL career (PA) .298/.362/.526 (1,591) .261/.379/.476 (1,392)

Unlike the center-field battle in which the prize is a full-time starting job with the loser likely to be banished to Triple-A, the far end of the bench, or perhaps even another organization, the battle between Swisher and Nady is simply over who will have the upper hand in right field. Regardless of the outcome this spring, both are likely to make more than 400 plate appearances this year.

That said, Nady, who was acquired at the trading deadline last year and finished the season as the Yankees’ left fielder, entered camp as Bobby Abreu’s successor in right field. It will be up to Nick Swisher, acquired in a November trade with the White Sox, to prove to Joe Girardi and his staff that he is the superior option for right field, which, truth be told, he is.

Superficially, Nady and Swisher are very similar players. Both have played all three outfield positions and first base in the majors. Both have career major league slugging percentages in the .450 after similar numbers of plate appearances. Neither has ever played on an All-Star team, picked up an MVP vote, or lead the league in any category, no matter how marginal, but both are considered useful, productive second-tier players. The differences start to show up when you note that Swisher is two years younger, a switch-hitter, and a far better fielder regardless of position.

According to Dave Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range [1], Nady was a sub-par defender in left field last year, ranking below such renowned glovemen as Manny Ramirez, Jack Cust, and Adam Dunn, was worse than that when he played right field, and worse still in right field in 2007. According to Ultimate Zone Rating, Nady [2] has cost his teams 3.8 runs with his play in right field over the course of his career. From watching him play last year, I’d describe Nady as a below average fielder. He’s not a butcher out there, like Bobby Abreu was last year, but his defense isn’t going to help. If you play Nady, you’re doing it for his bat and his bat alone.

Swisher was overextended as a center fielder in Chicago last year, but as a right fielder in 2007, he ranked third in all of baseball according to Pinto’s system (behind only Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino). UZR rates Swishe [3]r [3] as 10.1 runs above average in right field over the course of his career, a nearly-14-point improvement over Nady. All else being equal, Swisher should be the Yankees’ right fielder simply because of his defense, which would represent a drastic improvement over Abreu [4], whom UZR rated as 22.9 runs below average in right field in 2008 alone.

But not everything else is equal. Swisher and Nady may have similar career slugging percentages, and Nady may have bettered Swisher’s slugging in the minors, but it’s Swisher who has more power, as more of Nady’s slugging is due to his solid career batting average. Certainly having a lower career batting average, as Swisher does, is not a virtue, but Swisher’s .207 isolated slugging (compared to Nady’s .178) suggests Swisher can both better survive an dip in average, like the one he experience last year, and has the greater potential to have a huge season should his batting average spike. Consider that last year, Nady hit .303 to Swisher’s .219 but only out-homered his rival by one, 25 to 24.

The same is true, but to a greater degree, when it comes to plate discipline. Not only is Swisher’s career on-base percentage nearly 19 points higher than Nady’s, but it’s 110 points above his career batting average, while Nady’s career “isolated discipline” is exactly half that at 55 points (well below the major league average). Indeed, despite that .219 average, Swisher posted a .332 on-base percentage last year, just two points shy of Nady’s career mark.

The good news is that, unlike Cabrera and Gardner, Swisher and Nady make sense as a platoon, with the switch-hitting Swisher taking the bulk of the playing time as the left-handed half of the pair. Swisher’s career splits are fairly even. He’s shown more power against righties, but has hit for a slightly better average and shown considerably more plate discipline against lefties. That would seem to run counter to the proposed platoon, as Swisher’s ultimately more valuable against lefty pitching, but he’s still been more productive against righties than Nady over their careers, while Nady has been something of a lefty-killer in his career (.308/.383/.470 vs. LHP though that split has been evening out and even reversed in his career year last year).

The plan entering camp was for Nady to be the primary right fielder and for Swisher to pick up several starts a week spelling Nady in right, Damon in left, Matsui at DH (likely by pushing Nady or Damon to DH), the winner of the center-field battle (likely by pushing Damon to center), and even Teixeira at first on the odd occasion (though, despite his fondness for the position, Swisher rates as a sub-par defensive first baseman–right field is easily his best position). The Yankees would be much better off with the superior glove and lefty bat of Swisher in right as a rule, with Nady picking up starts against lefty starters in relief of Swisher, lefty-hitting Damon, and, via the methods above, the lefty-hitting Matsui and the winner of the center-field battle, who will also be diminished by facing lefty pitching.

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URLs in this post:

[1] Dave Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range: http://www.baseballmusings.com/archives/cat_probabilistic_model_of_range.php

[2] Nady: http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=1658&position=OF

[3] Swishe: http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=4599&position=1B/OF

[4] Abreu: http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=945&position=OF

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