Earlier this year I wrote a piece about Daniel Nava, the lovable, scrappy underdog, who continuously overcame ridiculous odds and obstacles to become a major league player. His path to the majors is nothing short of miraculous. But at this point, Nava has moved so far past just being a good story. These days he is one of the best outfielders in the American League, and one of the most valuable assets in the Red Sox organization.
Don’t write that last sentence off as blatant homerism or hyperbole, go read it again.
Now consider this: The only qualified American League batters with a higher on base percentage than Nava are four guys you may have heard of: Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Joe Mauer, and David Ortiz. Cabrera, Mauer, and Ortiz earn an average of $19.33 million this year. Trout will bring home $510,000 and Nava makes a touch less at $505,500.
So, in other words, American League teams either have to pay close to $20 million a season to have a guy that gets on base around 40 percent of the time, or they have to have Mike Trout or Daniel Nava on their roster. That’s puts him pretty exclusive company.
Nava’s value certainly shouldn’t end after this season, either. He will not be arbitration-eligible until 2015, and not eligible for free agency until 2018, at the earliest. There is always a lot of talk about the value of young, cheap, cost-controlled talent, but what about late-peaking talent that is under team control through the prime years of their career? We’ve found the new market inefficiency! Nava won’t even hit free agency until he’s 35. That’s insanity. (Since I love the guy and he is clearly out-earning his income, it would be nice to see the team buy out the next five years at a price that is beneficial to both the team and player like they did with Pedroia, but they are certainly under no obligation to do that.)
So there he sits, a .300 batter (second among American League outfielders to only Trout’s .330, and eighth overall in the AL) who can suddenly not only handle either corner outfield position really well, but also is able to competently play first base simply because it was a team need and he was willing to accept another challenge in spring training. His defensive improvement has been well-documented and much discussed, but if you remember the guy that played left field in his initial stints with the big league club, and compare that to the guy that picks the ball off the Green Monster and turns doubles into singles like he’s been playing in Fenway for ten years, those two players hardly even resemble the same guy.
He’s a player that you can slot into almost any spot in the lineup. This year, the vast majority of his at bats have come in the second, fifth, and sixth spots, but Farrell has had him bat in every spot in the order, excluding cleanup, over the course of the season.
One of the big knocks on him the past few years has been his tendency to struggle down the stretch. In 2010 after hitting .300/.371/.488 in the first half, he fell apart with a .185/.333/.235 split in the second half. 2012 was a very similar experience. He hit .275/.388/.427 in the first half and once again dropped off the table, hitting .188/.284/.323 after the break. So in his first full season with the big league club, another drastic late season swoon would seem almost inevitable, right? Wrong. He has been one of the best hitters in baseball since the All Star break, posting a triple slash line of .333/.417/.482.
Another common Nava knock coming into this year is that he was strictly a platoon player. You definitely could give him opportunities against right-handed pitching, but against lefties he was a Mendoza Line dweller, hitting .207 in 2010 and .185 in 2012. In 2013 he has seen more at bats against lefties than his other two seasons combined, and he’s responded favorably posting a much more tolerable average of .241 with an on-base percentage of .306. That’s not great, but it is undoubtedly an improvement.
And that is what has made Nava into the player that he is — improvement. His arrival in the major leagues was not enough to satisfy this hard-working over-achiever. He has taken every criticism; poor defense, bad platoon splits, fading down the stretch, and significantly improved in each of those areas. How many players at 30 years old are still making marked strides in different areas of their game to the degree that he is?
Is Daniel Nava a great success story? Absolutely. But he is also so much more than that. He’s one of the most outstanding outfielders in the American League, one of the best values in all of baseball, and a leader on the winningest team in the majors. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to appreciate what an awesome player he has turned himself into just because he wasn’t a fast-rising, can’t-miss prospect.
Back in January of 2008 when the Red Sox purchased his rights from the Chico Outlaws it is only appropriate that he came from the Golden League, because with Nava the Red Sox have struck gold.