Please forgive the horrible pun in the title. I played around with a few other ideas before settling on that one, and as silly as it is, it’s rather apt. Daniel Nava is an anomaly, quite like anyone else who’s ever played in major league baseball.
Most of us are aware of Nava’s fascinating, inspiring, Rocky-esque, origin story. He started as the equipment manager at Santa Clara University, before dropping out to play baseball at junior college, after which, he returned to play baseball at Santa Clara and had a dominant senior year. He went undrafted out of college and tried to play in an independent league called the Golden Baseball League. He worked out for the Chico Outlaws in 2006, but didn’t make the team. He tried out again in 2007 and made the team. The Sox famously bought the rights to his contract from the Chico Outlaws for $1 after the 2007 season (more was promised to the team if the Red Sox retained Nava’s services after spring training). This story has been chronicled by many different publications, and each iteration of this story is worth reading, if you haven’t already done so. Here are two to take a look at: MLB.com and Boston Globe.
2013 was such a surreal, dream-like season in so many different ways, but one of my favorite aspects of 2013, other than the world championship, was Daniel Nava’s breakout. Most of you are probably familiar with his stat line from 2013, but here it is again: .303/.385/.445. It was fantastic. He was 7th among all major league outfielders in OBP, ahead of people like Jose Bautista and Giancarlo Stanton! He was 14th in wRC+ (128), ahead of Justin Upton, Adam Jones, Jay Bruce, and Jacoby Ellsbury! He was in the top 10 in wOBA (.366), ahead of Carlos Gomez, Justin Upton,
Carlos Beltran, Hunter Pence, Adam Jones, and many other All-Star caliber players! It was, truly, an amazing season for Daniel Nava. If there’s anything regrettable about his career, it’s that it took quite some time before he had his first cup of coffee in The Show. More than likely he needed the extensive seasoning, but the fact that Nava enjoyed the best season of his career at age 30, doesn’t bode particularly well for his future.
To see if there was anyone else in baseball history quite like Daniel Nava, I ran a query using Baseball-Reference’s excellent Play Index. I did a search for all the players from 1901-2014 whose third season in the big leagues was also their age-30 season and sorted it by OPS+, and the list is rather…uninspiring, with the glaring exception of Jackie Robinson, who sits atop the leader board. There are a couple other decent players, like Chief Meyers, Walt Moryn, and Dale Long, all of whom carved out nice careers for themselves, but the rest of the list is dominated by quad-A types from generations ago. In the past 20 years, no other third year 30-year old has had an OPS+ over 100, except for Joe Inglett, who was out of baseball after his age-33 season. Somewhat shockingly, there have been only five players (Lloyd McClendon, Daniel Nava, Joe Inglett, Frank Menechino, and Ron Coomer) in the last 35 years with an OPS+ upward of 90 (minimum 300 plate appearances) in their third season in the majors, at age 30. Additionally discouraging is Nava’s triple slash line this year: .258/.332/.335. This is also aided by a slightly above average BABIP of .324. His K-rate is up and his BB-rate is down, and his isolated power is nearly half of what it was last season. His groundball rate spiked way up, and his pop up rate increased by more than 100%.
If you compare the following ESPN Hot Zones, you’ll notice that Nava is struggling tremendously on pitches inside and isn’t enjoying nearly as much success at the top and bottom of the strike zone this year, as he did last year. In 2013, Nava punished belt-high pitches, but this year he’s only seen success on pitches slightly down and away or pitches chest-high and down the middle.
Looking at all this, it’s kind of difficult to feel optimistic about Nava’s chances for improvement next season, especially when one looks at Baseball-Reference’s Similarity Scores for batters like Nava through Age 30: http://www.baseball-reference.com/friv/sp.cgi?I=navada01:Daniel%20Nava. Frankly, it’s a terrifying list (an explanation of Similarity Scores can be found here: http://www.baseball-reference.com/about/similarity.shtml).
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. If one looks at Nava’s plate discipline numbers, one will notice that there aren’t any major red flags; in fact, if anything, his understanding of the strike zone has improved a bit. He’s making more contact on pitches inside the zone, he’s swinging less at pitches outside of the strike zone, and his swinging strike rate is at a career low (4.7%). Additionally, since returning from the minors, on May 24th, Nava has hit .293/.362/.356 (unfortunately, much of that success is due to a .370 BABIP). Admittedly, the power outage is worrisome, but throughout his professional career, he’s never had an ISO below .100, and his HR/FB rate is down big time from where it was in 2012 and 2013 (it’s currently at 2.9%, and it was at 7.6% and 8.2%, respectively), so this year could be a fluke.
As much as I love Nava being a part of this team, a page has been turned, and an era is ending. Hindsight, as the cliche goes, is always 20/20, but I can’t help but feel now that the Sox should have sold high on Nava in the offseason. Obviously, that didn’t make much sense at the time, as the Sox needed him and he’s cheap, but his value was at an all-time high. I’d be ecstatic to see Nava return to his 2013 form, but history stands in his way. Then again, the odds have been stacked against him his whole life; maybe he’ll continue to defy them and surprise us all.
(All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs)