A quick glance at the American League leaders in on-base percentage reveals a number of names one would expect. Miguel Cabrera and his league-leading .446 OBP, Mike Trout, and Joe Mauer round out the top three.
Yet high up on the list-- far beyond where any sane person would imagine him to be--sits Daniel Nava at No. 5, sandwiched between teammate David Ortiz and Robinson Cano and ahead of more notable names like Chris Davis, Dustin Pedroia, and Adrian Beltre. Nava’s .390 OBP and his 10.4% walk percentage--25th in the AL--demonstrate that he is a man who is unperturbed at the thought of taking a walk.
Indeed throughout his rather unorthodox career, Nava has proven particularly adept at getting on base. Even when his batting average has dipped-- as it did last year in 2012-- Nava has always maintained an above-average OBP. While his career batting average sits at a solid .270, his OBP is even more impressive at .370, indicating Nava not only has a good eye but also the patience to carve out a successful approach at the plate.
For Nava, patience has been a steady presence throughout his roundabout journey to the major leagues. After failing to make his college team at Santa Clara University, Nava signed on as the team’s equipment manager before ultimately making the squad.
Following college, the now 30-year-old outfielder had little choice but to pursue an opportunity with the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League. Unperturbed as always, Nava batted .371/.475/.625 for Chico, walking more times than he struck out--48 versus 42 in 314 plate appearances.
This brief glimpse of promise was enough for the Boston Red Sox to sign Nava for the grand total of one dollar and send the 25-year-old to High A. The story-- nice as it was-- should have ended there had Nava’s career followed any conventional script.
But the switch-hitter’s story instead followed a different path, as an increasingly familiar pattern developed during Nava’s slow march up the minor league ladder: He would hit and hit and hit until the Red Sox had no choice but to promote him.
After a call-up to Double-A during his second professional season, Nava posted a .364/.479/.568 line with 25 walks and 12 strikeouts in 144 plate appearances. When he again succeeded in Triple-A in 2010, the Red Sox had little option but to give Nava a major league opportunity. He of course rewarded the team’s faith by belting a grand slam off Joe Blanton on the first pitch he saw.
Nava’s flair for the dramatic notwithstanding, the luster appeared to have waned on the outfielder’s career after he batted a middling .243/.352/.379 in three seasons prior to 2013. But after making noticeable improvements against left-handed pitching--he’s batted .242/.310/.343 against lefties this year, which is still poor, but far better than the .185/.280/.310 line he amassed in 2012--and remaining ever-patient, Nava has once again dispelled any doubts over his ability to survive in the majors.
Through a career-high 460 plate appearances this season, Nava has hit .300/.390/.451, which places him 12th in the AL in OPS and ahead of players like Evan Longoria, Adam Jones, and Prince Fielder. He also ranks 13th in the AL in pitches seen per plate appearance and has been an important contributor on a Red Sox team that leads all of baseball in walks.
He may not have taken a typical path to the majors or have the most identifiable name among the league’s best hitters, but Daniel Nava has been one of the more valuable players in the American League this season.
At the very least, he has paid the Red Sox back for that dollar they spent to pry him from the Chico Outlaws back in 2007.
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A thank you to Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for the information that went into this article.
Alex Skillin is a writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @AlexSkillin