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July 2, 2012

Out of Left Field

Williams, Yastrzemski, Nava

by Matthew Kory

As sabermetricians, we are imbued with the idea of sample size. The larger the amount of data we have, the more certain of our conclusions we can be. But sometimes it’s the strange things that happen over a third of a season, the very things you’d be nuts to predict, that make the season exciting.

Take, for example, Daniel Nava. He plays left field for Boston. That’s weird, you say, because the Red Sox have a left fielder. True. His name is Carl Crawford. He played nine years for the Rays/Devil Rays, displaying defensive brilliance, above-average power, and speed that could alter the molecular structure of water. Between 2004 and 2010, his last season in Tampa, Crawford hit .301/.344/.461 with gold glove defense (as opposed to Gold Glove defense which is often worthless). After that, the Red Sox snapped him up for seven years, $142 million. He was the heir apparent to Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Manny Ramirez.

Then he hit .255/.289/.405 last year. Then he got hurt. Then he got hurt again. It’s July 2 and Carl Crawford has yet to set foot on the Fenway grass. Meanwhile, almost-2011-MVP Jacoby Ellsbury’s shoulder was ruined when Reid Brignac, like a piano in a Laurel & Hardy film, fell on it a week into the season. Those were the key injuries, but the outfield situation in Boston became so bad that the team had to, once again, resort to calling up Daniel Nava.

Now, let’s step back a bit. Daniel Nava was a 28-year-old in Triple-A who hit .268/.372/.406 last season. Yeah, there’s some on-base ability there, but he was 28 and in Triple-A. That doesn’t say prospect. In fact, it doesn’t say much at all. Nava was so nothing to the Red Sox that they didn’t invite him to spring training this season. Here are is a list of just a few of the players who were invited to Red Sox spring training this year:

  1. Will Inman
  2. Nate Spears
  3. Chorye Spoone

We can stop right there. All you need to know is someone named Chorye Spoone was invited to spring training while Daniel Nava was not. This is like not being invited to your brother’s wedding and then finding out after the fact that your ex-girlfriend got an invite. And she went. And paid for it with your credit card.

This wasn’t the first time Nava was snubbed by his own team. He was cut by his college team but stayed on to wash the team’s uniforms. He later made the team and played well but was not drafted anyway. He caught on with the Chico Outlaws of the No Chance In Hell League, but only after trying out and not making the team, of course. There he won league MVP honors. This was enough for the Red Sox to buy him from the Outlaws. For a dollar.

http://www.sfhs.com/athletics_temp/athletics/news-detail.aspx?pageaction=ViewSinglePublic&LinkID=2545&ModuleID=18

Nava played his way up the Red Sox ladder and then the annual Boston Injuryfest took place. The team became increasingly desperate for warm bodies, which was the cue for the Nava theme song. The unlikely occurred on June 12, 2010 when, in a nationally televised game, Nava came to the plate against the Phillies’ Joe Blanton with the bases loaded and the Red Sox leading 2-1 in the second inning. This happened.

“This” would be a grand slam on the first pitch he ever saw in the big leagues. Nava became a sensation. He was featured in the New York Times, and written up in just about any publication that conceivably covered baseball.

Here is Daniel Nava offering career advice to a high school baseball player.

Kid: I want to play major league baseball. What advice can you give me?
Nava: Don’t be very good.
Kid: Huh?
Nava: You’re going to want to be bad. Pretty bad. Also, stop growing because you’re already getting too big to be as bad as you’ll need to be.
Kid: Um… what are you talking about?
Nava: You should get cut from your team immediately.
Kid: Are you nuts?
Nava: Oh, and you need to start washing everyone’s underwear.

The grand slam was no doubt impressive and highly unusual, but in the scheme of things, not really that valuable. Aside from the slam, Nava wasn’t too much different than many emergency injury fill-ins. After the first game he finished the season hitting .236/.348/.331. He was a fun story but he was over his head talent-wise.

Unsurprisingly, the Red Sox agreed. We know that because he played the 2011 season in Triple-A and then lost his spot on the 40-man roster. That means Nava was available to any team that wanted him, virtually free of charge. Nobody did.

That catches us up to this season. The annual Boston Injuryfest was again underway (watch out for the balloon animals, kids!) as seven different outfielders were on the disabled list. Jason Repko started in center field. The Red Sox traded for Marlon Byrd. Once again, the team needed warm bodies. Once again they called on Daniel Nava. Not because they had any expectation of anything but because he could stand in left field without hurting himself or anyone else. Anything else was gravy.

Ready or not, Nava brought the gravy.* He didn’t hit a grand slam in his first at-bat, but he has hit .294/.411/.462 on the season. With 143 at-bats, Nava doesn’t have enough to qualify for the batting title, but if he did, his on-base percentage would rank sixth in all of baseball.

*This will never be a t-shirt.

Nava’s eye is perhaps the most impressive thing about him. He knows the strike zone and more importantly he is keenly aware of where his ability to hit pitches lies. He isn’t Vlad Guerrero and he knows it. He isn’t Dustin Pedroia and he knows it. He rarely expands the zone as you can see here (images courtesy of Texas Leaguers). Here are all the pitches Nava has taken this season:

Here are the pitches Nava has swung at:

It’s easy to see some themes emerge. Nava is susceptible to change-ups and curveballs low and out of the zone from time to time. Beyond that, uh, he’s chased a high fastball or three? If you throw him a ball, Nava isn’t swinging.

Nava’s season has been remarkable in light of his performance over the past three years. His rise up the team’s minor-league ladder to grand-slam-on-the-first-pitch-seen fame, his subsequent mediocrity and banishment back to Triple-A, his mediocre performance there and resulting removal from the 40-man roster, all scream one-hit wonder. Oh, sorry, ONE-HIT WONDER. (I did say “scream.”) He’s the prototypical guy who gets to “tell his grandkids about it.” Why his actual kids won’t be interested I’ve never been able to understand, but in any case, Nava hasn’t been that guy. If anything, he’s been far more impressive the second time around. This time there hasn’t been a gimmicky performance on national TV to drive the narrative. This time he’s been legitimately good.

However, I’d be lying of I said there wasn’t a signature moment.

It came in the bottom of the fourth inning of the May 29 game against the Detroit Tigers. The Red Sox were facing Justin Verlander, who was pitching like a guy who won the AL MVP last year because, actually, he was that guy. The Red Sox had loaded the bases on three singles. With one out, up came… [drum roll] Nick Punto! Punto did what Baseball-Reference refers to as “Popfly: SS (Weak).” He is, after all, Nick Punto.

It’s been said that if hitting is timing, then pitching is disrupting timing. Watching Justin Verlander work, you can see the truth in that statement. The man possesses a bionic arm, but he is also smart enough to know when to throw crazy hard. If you can get guys out at 92 mph, why throw 100?

That fourth inning Verlander threw one fastball to the second batter of the inning, Jarrod Saltalamacchia. It was 92 mph. He threw one fastball to the third batter of the inning, Mike Aviles. It was 95 mph. He threw three fastballs to the fourth batter of the inning, Scott Podsednik. They were 96, 96, and 98 mph. Punto got two fastballs, the first at 97 mph, the second at 98. I’m giving you more information than you need to get the point. Verlander dials it up when the going gets tougher and in that inning was getting tougher so that’s exactly what he did.

Then up came Nava. Here was the first pitch:

 

 

A 98-mph fastball that Nava somehow fouled off. How, as my grandmother says, in the blankety-blank do you even touch a 98 mph fastball? It’s nuts! Verlander uncharacteristically missed with the next three pitches (100 mph, 80 mph curveball, 99 mph) bringing the count to 3-1.

Bases loaded, two outs, 3-1 count, we all know what’s coming. The catcher could have shouted, “OK, guys, FAAASTBALL coming!” And in fact he may have, I don’t know. I do know that’s what Verlander threw, 99 mph just above the belt and on the outside corner. Nava swung through it.

 

 

That brings the count full. It also means Verlander has thrown Nava two fastballs over the plate and Nava hasn’t gotten around on either one. It also also means Verlander just put his cards on the table. Nava knew what was coming (as much as a batter can honestly know that kind of information) and he still missed. Now Verlander can throw just about anything he wants. Nava has to be ready for anything. But messing around aside, if Verlander can throw a fastball over the plate, he has to feel comfortable about how it will turn out. There’s a history of success there.

Here’s the pitch…

 

 

Verlander goes back to the fastball but this time leaves it out over the heart of the plate. That was the extent of the favors he did for Nava though, as the pitch was hurled plate-ward at 100 mph. To my eye, Nava started swinging as Verlander went into his motion, but however he did it, Nava got the bat around on it and lined it hard into left field for a bases clearing double*. The at-bat, and effectively the game, were both over, other than for Verlander to spend the rest of the week wondering how in the blankety-blank he was beaten by something called Daniel Nava.

* I’d like you to know that in the preceding paragraphs I’ve avoided using the term “Daniel vs. Goliath.” You’re welcome.

So to sum up, Daniel Nava is a guy who spent a year of college eligibility cleaning the underwear of guys who now have to pay to see him play. Not only that, but he’s been the Red Sox’ most productive outfielder to date. Not only that, but Nava has been the 49th most productive hitter in baseball this season, more valuable than Hanley Ramirez, Joe Mauer, Ian Kinsler, and tied with Adam Dunn.

Carl Crawford is on his way back and when he comes back he’ll likely reclaim his starting spot in left field. Last year notwithstanding, Carl Crawford is probably still very good at baseball. He’s probably much better than Daniel Nava. As such, the Red Sox will likely be better in the long term when this happens. But the short term is going to suffer.

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

6 comments have been left for this article.

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Out of Left Field: Cur... (06/25)
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