Dave Nichols: Who is Laynce Nix?

With all the injuries, losses and hitting woes for the Washington Nationals, one player has exceeded any type of projection or prediction, and his name is Laynce Nix. His home run and phenomenal catch in yesterday's 2-1 win over Philadelphia has made him a pretty popular player right now. Nix is a 30-year old left-handed outfielder from Texas. He's stocky and powerful, but runs pretty well for a big guy and is not a liability on defense. He signed as a free agent this past offseason when he couldn't work out a deal with the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he'd been employed for the last two seasons. Nix has been in the big leagues for parts of nine seasons and owns a mediocre career slash line of .248/.290/.437, including this season. I say "parts," because he has never had more than 400 at-bats in a single season. He recorded exactly 400 plate appearances in 115 games in 2004 at the age of 23 for the Texas Rangers and it looked like he could turn out to be a useful player. That season he went .248/.293/.437 with 14 home runs and 46 RBIs. The next year he was limited to 63 games because of a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, and he spent the next several seasons bouncing back and forth between the bigs and the minors when he wasn't on the disabled list. In 2006 he was part of a big trade between the Rangers and the Milwaukee Brewers, but he only played in 19 major league games total between the two clubs that season. He spent almost all of 2007 and 2008 in the minors, hitting 48 homers combined those two years, but only saw 20 games total for Milwaukee. He became a free agent at the end of the 2008 season, signed with Cincinnati and hasn't played in the minors since. In 2009, he enjoyed a renaissance year of sorts, hitting 15 home runs in 337 plate appearances over 116 games, but his slash line (.239/.291/.476) left much to be desired. Still, Nix showed good pop and was brought back by the Reds. Last season, he was limited to 44 games and only hit four homers, but hit .291/.350/.455. Nats general manager Mike Rizzo saw enough out of Nix to offer him a minor league deal, and he's been one of the Nats' best hitters so far, bashing nine homers and hitting .305/.333/.576 in 126 plate appearances, often hitting cleanup since Ryan Zimmerman's injury. So what evidence do we have to think Nix can keep this production up? Truthfully, very little. A look at everyone's new favorite advanced statistic, BABiP (Batting Average on Balls in Play), tells us that his slash lines of last year and this are inflated by luck of balls falling for hits. His BABiP in 2010 was .361 and in 2011 is .359, both elevated in relation to his career average (.301) and the rest of the league (.297). Further, his home run-per-fly ball ratio is an off-the-chart 16.7 percent, well over his career norm. Where Nix is really treading on thin ice is his strikeout and walk rates. He's striking out more than he ever has in his career (27.0 percent) and walking less, only four percent of his at-bats. The league average walk rate, for comparison, is 8.5 percent. So as his BABiP normalizes, fewer hits will fall in and if he can't compensate by drawing more walks, not only will his batting average tumble, but his on-base percentage will go with it. And if a few of those fly balls that are now going for home run turn into long outs, we could see a return of 2009's slash line. Could Nix simply be having his career year at age 30? That's completely possible and not unheard of. His line drive rate is consistent with career norms and he hasn't shown a spike in either flyout or groundout tendencies, which are all pretty good indicators that even if (when) his BABiP normalizes, the bottom won't drop out on him completely. But I started by saying that Nix's performance has exceeded expectation, and now we know a little more about why. Dave Nichols covers the Nationals for Nats News Network. Read Nichols' Nationals observations part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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