When you’re a kid and you watch a sport, you can develop strong feelings about particular players. Sometimes these feelings can be positive, bordering on the obsessive.  Others, almost in the realm of loathing.  Often, these feelings are for rather benign reasons and when examined objectively, can be unfair.  There have also been players that, through the ages, a greater appreciation has been found for their games. Their performance is more positively viewed with the benefit of more advanced statistics that were not used to evaluate performance in their playing days.

Of the cards included in the 1991 OPC Premier Baseball set, most are of players that can be placed into 3 categories. First are the contemporary stars of the game, who would be the most obvious inclusions in a limited 132 card set.  The second are the aging players who are no longer stars, but whose previous status as stars allows them to be included.  The third are the young players, who had not yet become stars, or sometimes not even MLB regulars, but were included in the hope they would become good.

It is through this lens that we come to Otis Nixon.  When I came across his card in the 1991 O-Pee-Chee Premier set, I was immediately perplexed. What was Otis Nixon doing in this set?  From my memory as a child and as a baseball fan, two things stood out about Nixon.  He was very fast and he was very bad.  He was not a player I would include in a set if I only had 132 cards to use.

I thought I was very familiar with Nixon.  As a huge Expos fan, I watched him play for 3 years with my team. While he was definitely fast and could steal bases, he never seemed to be able to get on base.  The stat line on his baseball card from his 1989 year included gems such as hitting .217, no home-runs, and 21 runs batted in with a remarkable 37 stolen bases.  These are not stats that would endear yourself to many fans around 1990.  He then went on to play for the Atlanta Braves, who I also enjoyed watching on WTBS Superstation, which was part of my cable package at the time.  I didn’t really follow him much through the rest of his career, although I did know he was part of the exclusive club that played for both the Expos and the Blue Jays.

So, with my Otis Nixon card in hand, I decided to have a peek at Baseball Reference to see if he was as bad a ball player as I remembered.  Would he be someone whose true value was not appreciated at the time, and was actually a useful player in disguise by modern metrics?  Or, was I right in my assertion as a twelve-year-old that he was bad? The results tell an interesting story.

At first glance, Otis Nixon Nixon finished with a career WAR of 16.7 over 17 seasons, which works about to be just under one WAR per season which while isn’t fantastic, is honestly better than I expected to find. He had a career OPS+ of 77, which is well below the MLB average of 100. However, he stole 620 bases, good for 16th all time, two behind Kenny Lofton and one ahead of Hall of Famer George Davis.

Digging deeper into the numbers, if you include only the 6 seasons he played with the Expos and the Braves, he was good for 12.8 WAR, for an average of 2.1 WAR per season.  Even more shocking is that in his 3 years with the Expos, he never had more than 305 plate appearances.  When his performance is projected over 650 plate appearances, he would have averaged 4.0 WAR per season over those 6 years.

Just by glancing at his stolen base totals with the Expos, it seem like swiping 46 bags was an awful lot for only having 305 plate appearances.  I decided to use the Play Index to see if anyone had ever stolen more bases in fewer trips to the plate.  The results are listed below.

 

Rk Player SB PA Year Age Tm Lg
1 Otis Nixon 50 263 1990 31 MON NL
2 Miguel Dilone 50 292 1978 23 OAK AL
3 Gary Redus 48 295 1985 28 CIN NL
4 Otis Nixon 46 305 1988 29 MON NL
5 Willie Wilson 46 223 1978 22 KCR AL
6 Alex Cole 40 256 1990 24 CLE AL
7 Otis Nixon 37 293 1989 30 MON NL
8 Jarrod Dyson 36 290 2014 29 KCR AL
9 Bob Dernier 35 245 1983 26 PHI NL
10 Jarrod Dyson 34 239 2013 28 KCR AL
11 Alan Wiggins 33 274 1982 24 SDP NL
12 Jason Bourgeois 31 252 2011 29 HOU NL

 

My feeling that this was quite an impressive feat was justified in that there have only been three seasons in which a player has stolen more bases in fewer plate appearances.  Oddly enough, not only does Nixon appear on this list three times, he also tops the list with an incredible 50 stolen bases in 263 plate appearances.

On the other hand, for a player with so much speed in the outfield, he did not rate very well as a defender.  Baseball Reference has Nixon gaining 0.9 defensive WAR over his career, though the -3.0 dWAR over the last 7 years of his career as he aged was a drag on his numbers. Throughout his peak seasons, with Montreal and Atlanta from 1988-1993, he did manage to earn 4.6 defensive WAR, so he did show some competence as a fielder.  Unfortunately, later in his career, despite the fact he was still stealing bases at a good clip, his speed did not translate to even a replacement level fielder.  Managers seemed to be giving away runs by having him in the outfield.

Nevertheless, Nixon’s abilities on the bases were quite remarkable.  With his 620 steals in only 5800 plate appearances, there is no one who has more steals in the history of baseball in that few trips to the dish.  Below is a table showing the stolen base leaders, with 5800 or fewer PA.  Nixon is on top and it really isn’t close.
 

Rk Player SB PA From To Tm
1 Otis Nixon 620 5800 1983 1999 NYY-CLE-MON-ATL-BOS-TEX-TOR-LAD-MIN
2 Omar Moreno 487 5481 1975 1986 PIT-HOU-NYY-KCR-ATL
3 Ron LeFlore 455 4872 1974 1982 DET-MON-CHW
4 Bob Bescher 428 5277 1908 1918 CIN-NYG-STL-CLE
5 Dave Collins 395 5507 1975 1990 CAL-SEA-CIN-NYY-TOR-OAK-DET-STL
6 Bill North 395 4621 1971 1981 CHC-OAK-LAD-SFG
7 Frank Chance 378 4541 1901 1914 CHC-NYY
8 Tom Goodwin 369 4315 1991 2004 LAD-KCR-TEX-COL-SFG-CHC
9 Rajai Davis 365 3999 2006 2016 PIT-SFG-OAK-TOR-DET-CLE
10 Tony Womack 363 5389 1993 2006 PIT-ARI-COL-CHC-STL-NYY-CIN
11 Gary Pettis 354 4238 1982 1992 CAL-TEX-SDP-DET
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/3/2017.

 

He is also recognized in The New Bill James Historical Abstract (2001 edition) for two important distinction:  He led the majors with 478 stolen bases in the 1990s and he ranks 3rd all time in stolen bases after the age of 30 behind only Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock.

In the end, Otis Nixon wasn’t quite as bad a ball player as I thought.  In fact, it appears he was a productive player when he played those three years with the Expos, when I was most critical of his performance. Rather, when looking through his career with a modern perspective, it could be argued that he deserved more than a part-time job during those three years in Montreal, as he was just as productive as he was in his three years in Atlanta.  Instead, he got more plate appearances as an older player when his performance was in decline.

@jjtutty22

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