Brian Butterfield has coached third base in the major leagues for 10 years. In his world, finding that one outfielder who is a step slow or has a weak arm is currency that can be used to win a game.
In 2010, Daniel Nava was that player, and even the Red Sox knew it.
Nava made a quick rise through the Red Sox minor league system because of his skills at the plate. He had the patience to draw a walk and the power to hit a home run.
Nava even came with a good story. He was cut by his college team and made his way to the majors via junior college and an independent league. When the Sox called Nava up to the majors, he hit the first pitch he saw for a grand slam.
Lost in the margins of that tale was the fact that Nava didn’t play the outfield very well. Terry Francona, the Red Sox manager at the time, replaced Nava late in games for defensive purposes 14 times that season. They trusted him only in left field, too. Playing Fenway Park’s expansive right field was never considered.
“There were weaknesses,” said Butterfield, who was coaching Toronto.
The Red Sox designated Nava for assignment in 2011 and didn’t invite him to spring training before the 2012 season.
“Daniel had a choice at that point. Either he was going to get better or he probably wasn’t going to get another chance,” said Tom Goodwin. “There was work to be done and we told him that.”
Goodwin, now the first base coach of the Mets, was the minor league outfield coordinator for the Red Sox from 2009-11. As Nava drifted out of the public eye, Goodwin helped rebuild his career.
“A lot of people had input on it, his coaches in the minors especially. But it was Daniel who had to put in the work,” Goodwin said. “Drills, extra throwing before the games. He was an adequate outfielder in my estimation, but he had the ability to be better.”
Nava was a willing student. The four months he spent in the majors in 2010 drove the point home that he couldn’t survive with just his bat.
“When I first came up, I didn’t have the same focus on the defensive side that I have now,” he said. “I thought the way to get to the big leagues was to hit. For the most part, as an outfielder, that is huge.
“But what I learned is you have to be able to play some defense to stick in the majors and have a position. I had to refocus my effort and energy to commit to defense. You’ve got to have both. The more you play in the majors the more you realize how important one run is for a pitcher. That’s stuff you never think about in the minors.”
Nava spent the entire 2011 season with Triple A Pawtucket but improved steadily working with Goodwin and manager Arnie Beyeler. He would ask for extra work before games and played endless games of long toss to strengthen his arm.
Long toss is just what it sounds like. You essentially start playing catch and keep backing up until you’re throwing from 100 feet or so. Do it often enough and your arm will get stronger and more accurate.
“I used to do that lot, but once I got to pro ball, I kind of stopped doing it because not a lot of guys do it,” Nava said. “I made it a priority. I have to do it a couple of times a series or so.”
Beyeler, now the first base coach of the Sox, coached or managed in the minors for 16 seasons. In his mind, talent can take a player only so far.
“Being a good outfielder is all about repetition, putting in the time and energy,” he said. “You can work on your throwing, you can get better at reading the ball off the bat.
“I think guys take for granted how important defense is until they get to the majors. Especially late in the game, it’s critical. The guys who are good defensively work on it.
“You can choose not to work. But either you get better or you’re just waiting until somebody comes along and replaces you.”
Nava returned to the majors last season and played well amid the wreckage of a last-place team. His improvement in the field was noticeable.
“Quicker throwing the ball back to second. More accurate and more aggressive attacking the ball,” Butterfield said. “Our scouring reports in Toronto changed. In my mind, he made as much improvement as anybody in the league. It was obvious to me he had worked hard at it.”
This season, Nava made the Red Sox out of spring training and has started 53 of the team’s 71 games in the outfield, including 31 in right field. He has thrown out three runners and has yet to commit an error.
By advanced defensive metrics, Nava still grades out as a below-average outfielder in terms of the ground he covers. But there is improvement. More importantly, there is a level of trust that wasn’t there previously.
“There’s comfort there now,” said Jared Porter, the team’s director of professional scouting. “He’s been good in the outfield. The fact that he’s played so much right field shows you that.”
Nava, a switch-hitter, also improved the consistency of his swing from the right side, his OPS climbing by 100 points. Through Sunday, he was ranked in the top seven among American League outfielders in batting average (.288), on-base percentage (.383), RBIs (44), and OPS (.843).
“Daniel has been one of the keys to our season,” Sox manger John Farrell said. “I don’t think there’s much question about that.”
Watching from afar, Goodwin feels a sense of satisfaction.
“Daniel was looking to get an edge,” he said. “It’s good to see somebody succeed because they went about their business the right way.”
Porter was one of the scouts who recommended Nava after seeing him in independent ball in 2007. The player he is watching now is much different.
“Daniel has exceeded expectations,” Porter said. “It’s not very often you can say that. He always could hit, now he’s a well-rounded player. He’s gone beyond what we could have hoped.”Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.