One of the two biggest story lines from this past offseason was the overcrowding in Boston’s outfield. While the presumption after Hanley Ramirez signed became that one of the returning veterans would be dealt, it became more and more clear as time went on that the front office, perhaps as a result of the 2014 team’s paper-thin roser, would opt to hold on to all the depth they possibly could. At that point, most projections had the starting time in center and right field being split between Mookie Betts, Shane Victorino and Rusney Castillo. This left Allen Craig and Daniel Nava on the outside looking in, serving mostly as pinch hitters and sparingly used backups. Instead, things have gone differently than expected for the latter. Nava has started in four of the team’s first eight games and could be looking at a much bigger role than we expected heading into the regular season.
By now we should all know Nava’s amazing background story, but hearing about it never gets old so I’ll go through the Cliff Notes. He started out as an equipment manager for the Santa Clara team, left to become a junior college All-American, then went back to play for Santa Clara. After going undrafted, he signed to play Independent League ball and was eventually noticed by the Red Sox. This is when the team famously bought him from his Independent League team for a single dollar.
Nava was a borderline All-Star in 2013, hitting .303/.385/.445 with a .309 TAv over 536 plate appearances.
That was back in 2007, and the now-32-year-old has amazingly stuck with the organization for this long. In fact, he’s turned into one of the more quietly productive hitters in all of baseball. He really put himself on the map in 2013 when he formed a platoon with Jonny Gomes that wound up being one of the most productive left fields in all of baseball. Nava was a borderline All-Star that year and finished the season hitting .303/.385/.445 with a .309 TAv over 536 plate appearances. He fell off a bit from that pace in 2014, but he still managed a highly respectable .271 TAv in 408 trips to the plate.
What’s been clear as Nava has matured as a hitter has been his obvious superiority against right-handed pitching. Though he’s been a switch-hitter for most of his career, he’s excelled against righties while putting up middling performances against southpaws. To wit, he’s posted a .305 TAv versus the former while struggling to a .206 mark versus lefties. Although he’s been able to keep his excellent walk-rate steady with left-handed arms on the mound, he strikes out much more in those situations and also loses his respectable, if unspectacular power. While he ISOs .136 versus righties, that number falls all the way down to .088 against lefties.
These clear platoon splits bring us back to the discussion from the beginning of this post. Nava’s ability to hit right-handed pitching is something that will turn out to be very valuable on this team, and is why his name wasn’t thrown around in trade speculation nearly as much as Victorino’s or Craig’s. With the new additions in Pablo Sandoval and Ramirez, the Red Sox suddenly became a very right-handed-heavy lineup. It’s not the end of the world considering right-handed hitters typically have less severe platoon splits than their left-handed counterparts. With that being said, it’s still something that opposing teams can take advantage of.
Nava’s ability to hit right-handed pitching is something that will turn out to be very valuable on this team, and is why his name wasn’t thrown around in trade speculation nearly as much as Victorino’s or Craig’s.
Nava carries tremendous value in this respect. Until Castillo is ready to come up and help the major-league club, it’s clear that Victorino will be getting the majority of the playing time in right field. While he still has the ability to be a valuable all-around player, he’s also been something of a Bizarro World Daniel Nava. Spending most of his career as a switch-hitter, he’s been demonstrably worse against right-handed pitching. For his career, he’s put up a .264 TAv against righties compared to a .311 TAv. Though Victorino’s defense and base-running advantage probably makes a straight platoon unlikely, Nava could and perhaps should get a significant number of starts against right-handed pitchers, especially in games away from Fenway. Even when Castillo does come to Boston, it would make a lot of sense for the Red Sox to ease him into the majors. Part of that means sitting him against the tough right-handed pitching against whom Nava excels.
Nava started the year on the periphery of the roster, expected to be mostly a pinch hitter with some token starts when the starters need some rest. Based on early season trends, it looks like he’ll be playing a lot more than that. It’s something that makes a lot of sense with the construction of the roster, too. He’ll never be the flashiest of players on the field, but he’s proven he can be a productive member of a great offense, especially against right-handed pitching. He’s not going to be the most heralded member of this team, but Nava could quietly be one of the keys to this offense being able to compete regardless of who is on the mound.
Photo by Kelly O’Connor, sittingstill.smugmug.com