You’ve probably heard the Daniel Nava story before. He went undrafted out of college, was initially cut by the independent Chico Outlaws, and when the Red Sox did sign him, they only paid $1. (Boston would eventually pay $1,499 more). Three years later, Nava broke into the majors — but not for good. Even devout Red Sox fans would be forgiven if they’d forgotten Nava’s name heading into 2012, and he has never been part of Boston’s Plan A. But he’s waited for his turn — and so far this season, he’s been one of baseball’s best hitters.
Nava had about as memorable of a major league debut as you could possibly have. The first pitch he saw he parked in the Red Sox bullpen for a grand slam, becoming just the second player to ever turn that neat trick. That was on June 12, 2010. He wouldn’t hit another homer in the majors until May 14, 2012. In 2011, he never reached the majors. Between Carl Crawford signing to play left field, Darnell McDonald solidifying the fifth outfielder spot and Josh Reddick breaking out, there was no place at the table for the Redwood City, Calif., native. Even if there had been, Nava hadn’t exactly put his name on the top of the radar with his .268/.372/.406 line. It was good for a 117 wRC+, but that didn’t quite measure up to the numbers posted by Reddick (125), Drew Sutton (138) or Ryan Lavarnway (172), all of whom saw time with the Sox in ’11.
With Reddick off to Oakland in 2012, there was once again an opportunity for Nava, though he was once again not Plan A. He wasn’t even Plan B. In addition to Opening Day outfield starters Cody Ross, Jacoby Ellsbury and Ryan Sweeney, four other outfielders would start a game in the outfield for the 2012 Sox prior to Nava — McDonald, Jason Repko, Marlon Byrd and Lars Anderson. Still, Nava would end up with the most staying power of the group, none of whom remain in the organization save Ellsbury. When he did get his call on May 10, Nava made the most out of it: He notched hits in each of his first seven games and started 25 straight games before getting a day off. He hit .296/.433/.494 during that time. Between Carl Crawford’s brief return and a left wrist injury, Nava lost a chunk of his playing time and cooled off significantly. His final line was .243/.352/.390 in a career-high 317 plate appearances, but he solidified a place at the table.
Nava made his first Opening Day lineup this year, but he still wasn’t Plan A. The hype surrounding prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. had reached a fever pitch, and as such Bradley and the newly acquired Jonny Gomes moved to the top of the left field depth chart. Nava did get into the lineup in the season’s second game at designated hitter, a role which he was expected to share with Gomes until David Ortiz returned. At that time, it was assumed Nava would return to a reserve role. But as Ortiz’s return approached, Bradley started scuffling, and when he proved ultimately not ready for primetime, Nava took over in left. Nava has ping ponged between left and right ever since, but he has been a constant force in the lineup. In fact, only Ellsbury, Mike Napoli and Dustin Pedroia have logged more plate appearances for Boston this season.
It’s been a long time coming for Nava, and the much of the reason for his success has been patience — on both ends. It would have been easy for the Sox to cut bait on him in 2011. When they designated him for assignment on May 20 of that year, he was a 28-year-old hitting just .189/.316/.258 with no homers in Triple-A. Reddick was on fire and the team was still counting on Ryan Kalish to be a key player when he returned from injury. But once he cleared waivers and was outrighted to Pawtucket, the Red Sox kept plugging him in, and he eventually hit his way back into favor: In his final 88 games in Pawtucket that year, he hit .298/.395/.464, with 10 homers.
Nava, for his part, never lost patience, either. In the summer of 2011, I interviewed him in Pawtucket for a story on life going from Triple-A to the majors that centered on Reddick. He hadn’t dwelled on the slow start. “[I] understand that it’s a long season,” Nava told me. “Just because you start off and struggle doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily going to finish like that.”
By the time I spoke with him, he was indeed hitting better. But despite his improved play and a rash of injuries at the major league level, Nava had remained in scenic Pawtucket. When asked about that, Nava shrugged it off. “Baseball’s hard enough,” he laughed. “I try not to mess with myself any more than I already do.”
Nearly two years later, Nava’s making hitting look pretty easy. Of 165 qualified hitters, Nava’s 132 wRC+ ranks 40th. That’s higher than Robinson Cano. That’s higher than Manny Machado. That’s higher than Adam Jones. That’s higher than Pablo Sandoval. You get the idea. Of those on the Red Sox with at least 100 plate appearances, only Ortiz is hitting demonstrably better than is Nava. Nava has raised his walk rate and cut his K rate in each of his three big league seasons, and his BB/K rate this year is a robust 0.70. Only 24 qualified hitters have posted a better mark thus far. He’s driving the ball better as well, putting more balls in the air and as a result his ISO and SLG are up. He has already has more homers in 224 PA this year than he had in 505 major league PA entering the season.
Nava has played so well that some are chiding Major League Baseball for leaving him off the All-Star ballot. If hitting were the only consideration, then he’d certainly merit serious consideration. Of the 39 players ahead of him in wRC+, only 20 play for American League clubs — and only five of those 20 regularly play in the outfield. But defense is also part of the equation, or at least it should be. Defense is the fly in Nava’s ointment, as by UZR he has been one of the 10 worst outfield defenders in the game. There are a couple of caveats, though. One, Nava has been shuffled around pretty regularly; two, playing outfield at Fenway Park is about as much fun as having a case of bone-us erupt-us. Having said that, Nava’s defense isn’t going to be confused with that of Ellsbury or Trot Nixon any time soon.
Few players are perfect, and Nava’s defense may leave something to be desired, but the Sox will live with his subpar defense as long as he keeps hitting. With Shane Victorino having already dealt with back and hamstring injuries, and the JBJ show still retooling, Nava figures to qualify for the batting title for the first time in his career. He may never have been Plan A, but every team needs depth. The Red Sox have been patient with Nava, and Nava has patiently waited to shine. And now, that patience is paying off handsomely.