Daniel Nava is a player for the Boston Red Sox (that’s baseball, by the way) who has had a pretty unusual career. Too small to play when he started college, a late growth spurt and a ferocious work ethic wasn’t enough to induce any interest from the major-league teams. He played with independent-league teams for year, until the Red Sox bought his contract for $1.00. He hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the majors, then didn’t make the team the next year, was added as a backup outfielder the following year, and platooned and played fairly regularly in 2013 (winning a World Series in the process).
As a regular, Nava actually hit pretty well last year (.303/385/.831), with the 5th-highest OBP in the AL. The question is, What can we expect from Nava going forward? Was this year a fluke, or is he genuinely this good a hitter who just followed a weird path to the majors?
I downloaded the Lahman Baseball Database and use Python, iPython Notebook, and pandas to ask what historical comparisons could show us.
I looked at players who, like Nava:
- Made their major-league debut at the age of 27 or older.
- Played at least 3 seasons of major-league baseball,
- With at least 150 at-bats in at least one season. (I chose the 150-AB cutoff arbitrarily, mostly to get rid of pitchers and pinch-runners without being too exclusive otherwise. )
- Made their debut since 1960 (again, a rather arbitrary cutoff, but if I go much further back the game was significantly different from today)
This gave me 50 players. I only looked at OPS; I know it’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty decent way of summarizing batting value in a single number. Rather than include a large table here I’ll link to it.
A quick glance shows some familiar faces besides Nava. There are a number of Japanese players who joined the majors after playing in Japan – Ichiro and Hideko Matsui being the most famous. Davey Lopes played for 16 years in the majors despite not starting until he was 27! But overall, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of these players were more or less journeymen.
Average OPS hovered in the low .700s for most of the players, over most of the seasons (and then exploding up — Davey Lopes! Who also stole 35 bases that year, in part-time play at the age of 41). But after4-5 years the number of players begins to drop: The OPS is staying the same because the lowest achievers were being dumped out of the majors.
The players tend to be fairly variable, as you can see from the bottom chart (note, this is only including seasons with over 150 AB, or the variability would be much more dramatic). Champ Summers had one season with a .580 OPS in — naturally — limited playing time, then shot up to .957 two years later. Mike Difelice went from .815 to .504 in two years. Part of that is because many of these players were part-timers, barely making the 150 AB cutoff, which makes variability easier. Part of it is probably that once one of the guys has a good season they’re more likely to be kept a round a little bit too long in the hope they can repeat it.
Daniel Nava is pretty much right in the middle of these guys. He’s less variable than many, but then he’s only been in the majors for the 3 years I used as my cutoff. Some of the other players who look a little like him had some pretty decent seasons, but only a handful had really impressive careers (Hideki Matsui, Davey Lopes, Melvin Mora, um … ). On the other hand, Nava is just 30 years old, and lots of these players stuck around longer than that; the big dropoff is roughly around age 33 or so. So just based on what I see here, Nava has a reasonable chance of playing baseball for several more years, and might well have a pretty nice season or two in there, but probably hoping for him to break out and become much more than a platoon player is overoptimistic.
Good luck to him, though.