There couldn’t be a better person to represent Fire Brand of the American League and the 2014 Red Sox as the blog begins its second decade covering the Sox: outfielder Daniel Nava has won the annual Fire Brand of the Year Award — the first hitter to win since J.D. Drew represented the 2010 Red Sox. We all know the story by now: Nava wasn’t good enough to play in college. He didn’t get drafted and had to make his way through the independent leagues on a pittance, all in the hopes that one day, his talents would be recognized. Many people would have — and did — given up long before the switch-hitter joined the Red Sox system in 2008.
But even then, Nava’s ascent to the majors and to an important contributor of a World Series team was far from certain. While he rose through the system in fairly short order and burst on the scene with a first-pitch grand slam to introduce himself to the majors, but under a year later, not only was he in the minors, but he was off the 40-man roster. The only way one can be removed from the 40-man roster and still remain with the club is if no other team wants the player. All 29 teams passed on Nava. He finished the 2011 season without seeing any time in the majors. At this point in his life, it was entirely fair to suggest that the feel-good story was over.
But not quite. Due to a bounceback year in Triple A, combined with injuries and attrition, Nava got an extended look in 2012 as the team spiraled to over 90 losses. Making increased contact in the minors, he came up in early May and hit .251/.373/.397 before being demoted back down at the end of July. While he returned at the end of August — taking Carl Crawford’s vacated spot after The Trade — he limped to the end of the year and it was fair to wonder if he even had a bench spot on the 2013 squad. But the Sox saw something, and not only did Nava make the club out of spring training, he was the strong-side platoon in left field, playing against right-handers.
It wasn’t just offense that Nava had managed to improve upon before establishing himself in 2013. Previously limited to left field and nowhere else, he honed his craft enough that he saw a significant amount of time in right. In fact, he appeared in more games in right field than left in 2013. For someone to not only improve his offense enough to become a starting player, but also his defense, all at the age of 30, was remarkable. In Nava’s case, turning 30 was a good thing. For most players, it’s the beginning of the end.
All Nava did in 2013 was act as one of the best corner infielders in the majors. Amongst all corner outfielders with at least 500 plate appearances, Nava’s wOBA ranked sixth (seventh if you include Shin-Soo Choo, who is a right-fielder that masqueraded as a center fielder in 2013). For those unfamiliar with wOBA, a simpler way to say it is that just five corner outfielders outdid Nava’s production at the plate in 2013.
All the more curious that he rode the pine for most of the World Series run in favor of Jonny Gomes’ “hot hand” (if the Sox don’t win the World Series, Gomes’ failures at the plate would have been one of the biggest storylines). Whatever the reasons why Nava didn’t play often in October, he could have wrecked the feel-good atmosphere of the clubhouse by complaining. Did he? Not even close — he even said he was just happy to be there. “That was something I really did draw upon, because to start complaining about not playing, I was like, ‘You know what? Last year I didn’t know if I was going to be in the Red Sox organization,” he told the Providence Journal. “This year, I’m on a team in the playoffs with a chance to win the World Series.”
When one thinks of the criteria for the award:
The Fire Brand of the American League is a Red Sox player who exhibits character under pressure, an unassuming man who leaves the spotlight for other people but makes his indelible mark on the past season’s Boston Red Sox. A piece most people take for granted, but whom we would have missed dearly. The award is based on the prior season’s work. Thus, the first recipient of the award in 2004, Tim Wakefield, was based on his 2003 season.
… well, how could it not be Nava?