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The unlikely role model: Why phenom Xander Bogaerts finds inspiration in underdog Daniel Nava

09.17.13 at 7:25 am ET
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What can the top Red Sox prospect in decades learn from a player for whom entry into professional baseball — let alone the big leagues — represented an unlikely story? As it turns out, plenty.

Daniel Nava and Xander Bogaerts have taken very different paths to the majors. One is a phenom, one of the youngest players in the American League, an exciting young infielder with all the makings to become a star. The other was cut from his college baseball team, served as an equipment manager, was undrafted and had his independent league contract purchased for a dollar. Yet the two have found common ground, and formed an unexpected mentor-mentee relationship.

Nava has had a huge impact on the field for the Red Sox this year, posting the highest OPS (.844) among Red Sox outfielders (also good for ninth among all major league outfielders) and hitting .306 coming into Tuesday. He has set career highs in doubles (28), home runs (11) and RBI (63). He’€™s made considerable strides on defense, mastering the wall in left and expanding his versatility, learning to play first base while also becoming a solid right fielder. And Nava has exemplified the Red Sox’ patient offensive approach, seeing an average of 4.14 pitches per plate appearance, which ranks 11th best in the majors.

But he’€™s become an important force inside the clubhouse, which has become apparent with the arrival of Bogaerts. When asked which members of the Red Sox he goes to with questions about the game and who has been the most helpful in easing the transition from the minors to the majors, Bogaerts lists a few names, a group that almost always includes Nava.

‘€œI talk to Nava a lot. I like Nava, man,” said Bogaerts. “I don’€™t understand how he’€™s so patient. So I always ask him about that. He always looks for the pitch to drive.’€

There are a lot of similarities between Nava’s and Bogaerts’€™ games, despite their differing backgrounds and experience levels. Nava has shown the ability to take a lot of pitches and get on base often, posting a .392 OBP in 493 plate appearances. In five minor league seasons, Nava never finished a season with an OBP lower than .372, ending with a mark above .400 three times. Clearly, he’€™s not afraid to take a walk, drawing free passes in about 10 percent of plate appearances. Bogaerts has also finished each year with high marks in the on-base category, finishing with OBPs above .370 in each of his last two minor league seasons. Between Double-A and Triple-A this year, he walked in about eight percent of plate appearances.

Bogaerts sees an opportunity to learn from Nava’€™s patience at the plate, hoping to tailor his approach to become more selective.

‘€œ[Nava] is unbelievable, the way he takes so many pitches. And he has a really small zone, and he’€™s really good because of his zone. I really want to become something like that, hopefully,” said Bogaerts. ‘€œIt’€™s just amazing how his zone is, and I just ask him ‘€˜how did you get it?’€™ and he says just always look for a specific pitch. It’€™s probably because he has more experience but hopefully I’€™ll get there.’€

For his part, Nava has urged Bogaerts not to copy a template, but to find the approach that best suits the young phenom.

‘€œ[Bogaerts and I have] talked about approach and stuff. I’€™m very aware that my approach is not an approach that everyone else has, it’€™s just what I’€™m comfortable with,’€ Nava said. ‘€œI try to just encourage him and say, ‘€˜Hey man, whatever you’€™re comfortable with, you want to go do that because it’€™s obviously gotten you to the big leagues at 20 [years old], so keep doing that.’€™ It just so happens that our approach is similar, so we just kind of shared what our approach was. It wasn’€™t me trying to tell him what to do, but it was more, ‘€˜This is what I like to do, what do you do?’€™ and just bouncing ideas off each other.’€

Nava also notes that he talks with Bogaerts about the more general aspects of the game as well, helping the young infielder adjust to life in the majors.

‘€œ[He asks] other questions like, just baseball stuff, and how to approach the game and whatnot. He does a great job of asking a lot of good questions, so you feel like the guy really cares,” said Nava. “I’€™m just trying to share, like, ‘€˜Hey man, these are my mistakes, so don’€™t do what I did and do this instead.’€™ But he’€™s 20, yet he’€™s got the maturity of someone who is a lot older than 20. He’€™s a special player, so you want to help that guy and keep him going in that direction.’€

This season has presented a shift in Nava’€™s role in the clubhouse. Though it’€™s just his first full season in the majors, Nava has become a veteran presence on a team that strikes a balance between experience and youth. His unique background has made him an approachable figure, one who is able to relate to younger players effectively, possibly more so than the veterans who have spent years with the big league club. Nava knows his role within the team, both on and off the field, and embraces his part.

‘€œI think [my background] helps with the younger guys,” said the outfielder. “When you step into a clubhouse with as many veterans as the Red Sox, it’€™s a little different because a lot of the guys in here have accomplished so many things. Like, what are you going to tell David Ortiz? David Ortiz has done everything.

‘€œBut for me, [helping younger players] is part of this game. To positively impact someone who is coming up and could be in the game for a long time, you really only get that one opportunity, so I try and at least encourage him and keep his head on straight and have fun and enjoy the game and play the game the right way.’€

Manager John Farrell thinks there are lessons to be learned from Nava’€™s story, lessons that can benefit some of the young players on the club.

‘€œI’€™m sure all players who know what his story is will look to that,’€ Farrell said of Nava’€™s journey. ‘€œWe can never fully measure what’€™s inside a given player. So if there’€™s a willingness to work and overcome some of those shortcomings, that’€™s why you never give up on a guy that shows you some talent. And if they are given enough opportunities and time, they can overcome some things.’€

Having gone through the struggle he endured to earn regular playing time in the big leagues, Nava is able to relate to players in many different situations, whether they’€™re struggling, thriving or just trying to adjust to their new surroundings. The 30-year-old feels it’€™s part of his job to provide support for the players who may need it.

‘€œWhen [I was in] in the lower levels and playing with guys, it was an opportunity to just encourage them, and say, ‘€˜I’€™ve been in your shoes, and it gets better, it doesn’€™t always stay as bad as it seems right now,’€™” said the outfielder. ‘€œI think that’€™s something that’€™s really cool, to provide encouragement for guys because I’€™ve seen the lowest of the lows, and that’€™s why I try to encourage guys. Hey, you’€™ve made it this far, and if you’€™re not feeling good’€¦it could be worse, you could not even be playing baseball.’€

Now, Nava is not only getting consistent playing time, but excelling in a fashion that is garnering attention and has put him in position to serve as an inspiration — not only for where he has come from, but for what he is doing now. Once overlooked, his skill set now stands out even in the context of the best players in the world, turning him into an improbable role model who commands the admiration of even the most promising of prospects.

Read More: daniel nava, xander bogaerts,
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