At a certain point, it's important not to think of Daniel Nava just in terms of where he's come from but to think of him in terms of what he is.
Undoubtedly, his journey to the majors and then his persistence in making his way back to the big leagues both represent remarkable case studies in determination. He's an incredible underdog story, a more accomplished baseball version of Rudy. Yet perhaps because his playing career is seemingly intertwined with his narrative, there are times when it feels as if his on-field gifts are viewed almost as an afterthought.
Maybe that explains the conversation that surrounded the 30-year-old both during the offseason and in spring training, as the Red Sox were constructing their roster. Maybe, the thinking went, there would be a role for Nava on the bench in the big leagues, but the idea of the switch-hitter staking out an everyday role or laying claim to the majority of at-bats in left field (as a platoon partner, with Jonny Gomes, who would be in the lineup against right-handers) was treated with incredulity.
No more. At a certain point, Nava should be viewed not a surprise but instead on the basis of his performance and the tools he's displayed. And in terms of both, at this point, he's asserted himself as a good, solid major leaguer who is capable of contributing to the success of a good team while playing on a regular basis.
One-dimensional in his first call-up in 2010, Nava took it upon himself to add solid defense to his characteristically excellent approach at the plate to become a more complete player by the time he returned to the majors in 2012.
The result? For a time last year -- specifically, his first six weeks back in the majors -- he was one of the Sox' most important players. From his call-up on May 10 through June 22, he was hitting .339 with a .456 OBP and .523 slugging mark.
From that point forward, he faded -- partly because that performance is unsustainable for just about anyone, partly because he was dealing with a wrist injury that lingered for the duration of the year and ultimately required surgery. Still, his contributions were sufficiently compelling that the Sox recognized that Nava had considerable value as they assembled their 2013 roster.
"He's always been able to hit. He's hit throughout the minor leagues. We were and are very confident this guy's a big league player," said Sox assistant general manager Brian O'Halloran. "He's a good big league player -- a good hitter and he's worked hard on his defense to improve significantly since we first saw him a couple of years ago.
"It's hard to say [what impact the wrist injury had on his performance last year], but we knew he was playing through some things. That in and of itself was impressive, that he was out there trying to help us when he wasn't 100 percent. ... It's impressive that he fought through it, and here he is again, showing what he can do healthy."
A day like Monday's home opener at Fenway Park, in which Nava played a starring role in the Sox' 3-1 win, certainly underscores the point. On a day when the Red Sox offense verged on non-existent, Nava was a force, despite the fact that he was batting right-handed (his weaker side, from a career perspective) against Orioles left-hander Wei-Yin Chen. He became the team's first baserunner with a second-inning walk, delivered a single through the left side, and finally undid the scoreless tie by launching a massive three-run homer to left in the seventh.
All three at-bats came from the right side. That fact, in turn, highlighted the notion that -- just as he did with his defense -- Nava worked to address a deficiency to increase his value to the team.
In spring training, Nava received somewhat steady playing time against lefties. In 18 plate appearances, he hit .375 with a .421 OBP, a performance aided by the fact that he found a way to translate his signature ability from the left side to stay back and recognize both the spin and location of pitches to the opposite side of the plate.
"I had a couple of at-bats early in spring training, faced a lot of lefties, and could think about some stuff. I thought I was getting into it a little too much in terms of just gearing up," Nava explained. "Tried to relax more and make sure that I kind of applied what I do from the left side to the right side as best I could and just let the ball travel and trust myself."
Very, very early in 2013, that approach appears to have paid off. Nava has four plate appearances against lefties. He's reached base in all of them. The difference in effort level -- and thus quality of at-bat -- has been apparent.
"The more at-bats he has from left-handed pitchers, it looks like he's more comfortable," explained Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez, who worked with Nava throughout the switch-hitter's career as Red Sox minor league hitting coordinator. "His approach has been good from both sides of the plate, always -- swinging at good pitches, seeing pitches, working the count. It looks like he's more comfortable now, knowing that he doesn't need to do too much to get to pitches from the right side. I see him very comfortable, working real good, having a good routine from the right side to stay through the ball better, to the middle of the field, and he's trusting his hands a lot. In the past, his body was really involved in the swing. He didn't trust his hands. Now I see a guy trusting his hands more."
The improvement from the right side represents merely the latest instance in which Nava has worked himself into a position to claim growing importance on the roster. He put in the time to go from a below-average defender in left to being average or even a tick above. In spring training, he aced a crash course at first base to give himself more defensive versatility, while also holding his own in right field. Now, he has positioned himself to be a contributor against pitchers of either handedness (not that he'll replace Jonny Gomes against lefties, of course, but if Gomes or Mike Napoli are unavailable, the Sox won't hide from Nava).
The result? He's not a roster afterthought. In recent days, his level of play has pushed manager John Farrell to find ways to get him into the lineup, whether at first base on Sunday (to permit Mike Napoli a day as DH for a reprieve from the turf of the Rogers Centre) or in left field in place of the struggling Jackie Bradley Jr. on Monday.
The Nava/Bradley dynamic is an interesting one. Bradley's emergence in spring training meant that it was the rookie, and not Nava, who received the Opening Day start in left field, where Bradley made a considerable offensive and defensive impact.
Nava didn't resent the rookie's emergence. To the contrary, he was thrilled.
"I was happy for him, as I think we all were. It's a great story and he's a great player who has done a lot to open everyone's eyes. I was happy for him," said Nava. "I wasn't really worried about how it impacted me. If I was in his shoes, I'd want someone to be happy for me rather than thinking like, gosh this guy's taking playing time away from me."
But now, opposing teams are getting a scouting report on how to beat the 22-year-old and Bradley faces a period of some challenges in his adjustment. No shame in that. Virtually every player goes through it, and it's to be expected for any young player, particularly one who has just a couple of months of experience in Double-A or above. As Farrell has noted on a couple of occasions -- first when referencing the two-seamers thrown to Bradley by left-handers, then when discussing the fastballs on the hands that have beaten him in recent games -- these are pitches that the young outfielder hasn't necessarily seen on a consistent basis.
That, in turn, creates a very real rationale for sending Bradley to the minors when David Ortiz is ready to return from his Achilles injury. But Bradley's challenge is only part of that likely decision.
The other part is the fact that Nava is a pretty polished player right now. Even acknowledging that his defense will not match that of Bradley in left field, the advancement of Nava's plate approach -- in tandem with solid defense -- suggests that the Sox have a steady, big league-ready performer who can give Bradley time to complete his apprenticeship in the minors. Indeed, in some ways, Nava's approach at the plate represents what the Sox anticipate (and hope) Bradley will become with more grooming.
"He's always in a good position," Rodriguez said of Nava's approach. "He's not a guy with a lot of movement. It seems like he's always on time, and that allows him to recognize pitches better -- see rotation on the pitch. That's what makes him a guy that has a good approach at the plate, who swings at good pitches and keeps the head of the bat through the zone. It's a very good approach at the plate."
It is, moreover, an approach that serves as the basis for consistency, reliability. It is why, as the Red Sox stand one week into the season, it appears that Nava is poised to play an important role rather than being relegated to the role of a feel-good afterthought.
"I think his whole career, his whole life has been like that -- underrated. I think he takes that as a challenge, works hard at it to show people they're wrong," said Rodriguez. "Every time he's off the radar, he finds ways to get back. It's the way he's been through his whole baseball career. He became a player that people have to see."
In all likelihood, those watching the Red Sox will have plenty of opportunities to do so.