There are those guys like Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, and Dustin Pedroia. Then there are those guys who just don't have the facial follicles to pull off the beard that has become all the rage in the Red Sox clubhouse. "Some guys just can't do it; poor guys," graybeard catcher David Ross said this weekend. "I think Daniel Nava's been trying since spring training and he's still like a baby's butt."
Typical Nava. Guy is always trying to prove that he fits in. High school. Division I college. Junior college. D-I college again. The independent leagues. The minors. The majors. Back to the minors. Then the majors again. From the time he was an undersized kid in California, to the time he spent washing uniforms as the equipment manager at Santa Clara, to the time the Chico Outlaws sold him to the Red Sox for $1, to three tours in Boston that were interrupted briefly by the organization's decision to designate him for assignment, Nava has spent half his life trying to prove he belongs on a baseball field.
But, beard or not, there should no longer be a doubt.
Once upon a time Nava was just the hero in a heart-warming fairy tale that appeared to culminate when he hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, and thus became the 10th player ever to homer in his first at-bat as a Red Sox. But now he deserves to be the 10th Player Award honoree on a team that will at least be remembered for its ability to exceed expectations and succeed at a level far beyond what most believed was attainable -- if not as World Series champions.
In that sense, Nava is essentially the personification of this 2013 club, his own rags-to-riches story aligning nicely with the collective thread of worst to first. That feat could become official as soon as Wednesday, with Boston's magic number in the AL East down to 4, and from there the Sox will try to protect what's presently a three-game lead in the race to finish the regular season as the best team in the American League.
An American League in which Daniel Nava has emerged as one of the best hitters.
That's not hyperbole, either. After knocking two doubles and two singles in helping the Red Sox sweep the Yankees on Sunday night, Nava's .306 batting average ranks sixth in the American League -- behind six multi-time All-Stars named Cabrera, Trout, Mauer, Beltre, Ortiz, and Cano. Meanwhile, he's fifth in the AL in on-base percentage, trailing only Cabrera, Trout, Mauer, and Ortiz, his .392 narrowly trailing Big Papi's .397 for the Sox' team lead.
Nava's .844 OPS ranks a bit farther down the line, at No. 12 among qualifiers, though that's two spots ahead of Evan Longoria and seven places better than Prince Fielder -- and as such he's 10th in offensive win percentage, according to Baseball-Reference. That stat attempts to estimate the percentage of games a team with nine of this player batting would win, assuming average pitching and defense. Nava's number this season is 66.3 percent.
For comparison's sake, that's the same number Ken Griffey Jr. posted in his career.
Since the All-Star game, Nava's .356 batting average is the fourth-best in the major leagues -- which is particularly impressive given the way he faded significantly after sizzling starts to each of his first two big-league forays -- and even though he's hit just one homer since mid-June, his plate appearances have remained productive enough that since the break his .962 OPS is ninth in the game and fourth in the AL.
It looked as though Nava might be heading toward another of those worn-down regressions in late June, when his average slumped to a season-low .274, and soon after his role seemed to be somewhat reduced. After starting 71 of Boston's first 86 games, he started just 13 of the next 23 -- suggesting that even Sox management has been surprised by the resurgence he's had since returning from paternity leave in early August.
Heck, some within Sox management may be surprised he's on the team at all, considering they released him 16 months ago, then over the course of last season brought in Gomes, Shane Victorino and Mike Carp to man the corner outfield spots, while asking Nava to learn to play first base in an effort to increase his usefulness as a utility player.
Even into the final weeks of spring training there was no certainty about whether Nava would make the team coming out of camp, and on Opening Day the switch-hitter sat on the bench while left-handed-hitting rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. -- who'd never played above Double-A -- started in left field against southpaw C.C. Sabathia.
Yet here in September, with the club closing in on clinching, Nava finds himself in the middle of the order, playing left field and right field, hitting left-handed and right-handed, and a surprisingly important piece of what the Red Sox hope to accomplish. In and of itself, that's well beyond the original expectations. Then factor in how well he's played to put himself in this position, and on a team of 10th player-types, he's overachieved more than anyone.
John Lackey has been excellent in his comeback from elbow surgery, though he's basically returned to his pre-procedure level of performance. Shane Victorino has been really good, but he's had a nice career and there's a reason the Sox are paying him $13 million. Jose Iglesias now plays in Detroit.
The biggest competition for Nava is Koji Uehara, who is certainly worthy after putting together one of the greatest seasons a reliever has ever had, and will most likely be the fan's choice. It won't be a bad one by any stretch, considering that when the first two options were injured, he saved the Sox by not just being capable in the closer's role, but by emerging as the best in the American League.
However, look at his history. In terms of strikeouts, walks, and hits allowed, his rates this season are roughly the same as they've been the past couple years. He's been really good for a few years. His role has changed, but the rest we could've seen coming.
The same can't be said of Nava, considering he began the season just trying to stick. Just trying to prove he fit, and that he belonged with in the big leagues. Come next spring, though, that won't be his burden after the year he's had.
Even if he still can't grow a beard.
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