X marks spot for Pirates' treasure
Nady finally fulfilling star potential in breakout year
Friday, July 13, 2007
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It depends upon which side one believes.
The San Diego Padres insist that, when they and the Pirates were formulating the final component of the Brian Giles/Oliver Perez trade of 2003, the Pirates coveted Xavier Nady.
The Pirates are adamant that it was Jason Bay, not Nady, that they sought.
Well, now ...
What if, four years later, it turns out the players essentially were one and the same?
As the Pirates' season resumes tonight in Atlanta against the Braves, Nady is batting .291 with 14 home runs and 50 RBIs, putting him on a comfortable pace for 30 and 100 in the latter two categories.
It might be because Bay, in his first three-plus seasons in the majors, had a .292 career mark and averaged roughly 30 home runs and 100 RBIs.
"Aw, don't go there," Nady said when the subject was raised recently. "I feel like I'm capable of having success at this level. It's a goal I'd like to shoot for, to ... have some success at this level."
That rather vanilla evaluation might be expected. Generally, Nady is loath to speak about any aspect of his performance that does not relate directly to the team.
Bay's view: "I don't think there's any question in my mind that X can be a solid player in this league for a lot of years."
The glaring difference between Nady and Bay is that Bay has been performing at his level for much longer, even though each is 28 and each broke into regular duty in Major League Baseball in 2003.
But there is another difference, too: Nady was much more highly regarded as a youngster.
A native of Carmel, Calif., he set records for home runs and RBIs at the University of California, and his .729 slugging percentage as a senior broke Mark McGwire's Pac-10 Conference record.
That prompted San Diego to make him its first draft pick in 2000, and the Padres thought enough of him that, after he signed too late to play in the minors that summer, they added him to the major-league roster late in the season.
The Padres, losers of seven in a row, probably had little use for the 21-year-old wunderkind taking up space in their clubhouse.
"I just tried to keep quiet, stay to myself," Nady recalled. "It wasn't the ideal situation."
No, that came Sept. 30, in the penultimate game of the season, when Nady stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter before 50,267 at Qualcomm Stadium and singled.
"Awesome feeling," he said.
With that, he became just the 20th -- and most recent -- drafted player to make his professional debut in a major-league game since the draft began in 1965.
That 1.000 career average held fast until Nady legitimately worked his way through the San Diego system and joined the Padres in 2003. He finished eighth among National League rookies with a .267 average and had nine home runs in 371 at-bats.
Still, he opened the next season with Class AAA Portland and, all through that year and the next two, including the first half of 2006 with the New York Mets, he failed to convince either team's management he was everyday material.
The reason: He hit left-handed pitching at a .331 rate, but was 100 points lower against right-handers.
As the 2007 edition of Baseball Prospectus, a statistical journal, flatly put it, "Nady's a platoon player at best."
That remained the prognosis even after Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield acquired him from the Mets at the July 31 trade deadline last summer in exchange for Perez and reliever Roberto Hernandez. He batted .200 in the final month, weighed down by a fractured wrist.
And it crept into this season, too, when Nady's average was down to .240 in mid-May, and manager Jim Tracy began entertaining thoughts of Nady platooning with Ryan Doumit in right field.
There were days Nady was down, but never, apparently, to the extent he was doubting himself.
"I just need to keep playing," he would say.
The sentiment seemed understandable. In San Diego and New York, he was a spare part, often lower on the depth chart than players on multimillion-dollar contracts.
Even once he joined the Pirates, always in need of offense, he was bouncing from position to position, in and out of the lineup.
The solution soon would kick in.
With every pitch that heads his way, Nady's left leg kicks up. There is no particular reason for it. It simply is part of the swing that brought him exceptional success as an amateur and, at least against left-handers, as a professional.
But the downside is that major-league pitchers learned how to take advantage of the kick by accelerating their deliveries.
"When I first saw him, I thought he was a very good hitter who needed to control his leg kick," Pirates hitting coach Jeff Manto said. "And that's no secret or something we figured out. It's been known for years."
The key, then, as Manto put it, was "getting that thing under control."
Nady and Manto had intended to spend extra time working on the kick in spring training, but Nady's frightening bout with an intestinal ailment cost him nearly a month, and he went into the season with pretty much the same approach.
He had pretty much the same results, too: He was batting .213 against right-handers through May 16.
But the work and discussions continued and, soon enough, a rather unusual idea came about
: Nady would adjust his kick with each offering.
"What he does now changes from pitch to pitch, depending on whether there's a slide-step, a windup or a stretch," Manto said. "He's the one who has to make the adjustment, when he can do the full kick and when he has to keep it down."
Sounds awfully complicated for an already difficult job.
"Well, the extremes in leg kicks are players like Xavier and Jim Edmonds, and he just has to work with it," Manto said. "The kick is part of his swing, and that's fine. But it has to be controlled. So far, he has."
Nady has batted .328 against right-handers since May 18, and 12 of his season's 14 home runs have come against right-handers. Overall, he is on a .367 tear -- 22 for 60 -- in the past 15 games.
Oh, and playing every day.
"It's all very simple with X: He's been dramatically better against righties," Tracy said. "You look at all the big hits he's gotten, and you see that he's in the middle of a lot of our success. That's because he's hitting righties."
Tracy was asked if Nady has a chance to approach Bay's status over time.
"Time will tell. But is he on the right track to becoming what we all think he's capable of being? The answer is yes. He's not completely there. But the only way to find out is to keep sending him out there."
It is that aspect, Nady said, that has had the greatest impact.
"It's just a matter of believing in yourself and having the opportunity to play every single day, not worrying about things that are out of your control," he said. "Be happy with yourself, comfortable with where you are. I have no worries. I'm starting to have more at-bats, so I'm getting a little better feel for what kind of player I am and what I need to do to become more successful."
Quickly, though, Nady comes back to a team definition of success.
"To me, the fun in this game is taking the field knowing that you're the better team. You don't want to go out there thinking, 'Aw, we've got our work cut out against these guys,' and you're playing the game in Pittsburgh, and you never should be thinking things like that on your home field. It's so much more fun to win."
And so difficult, it can appear, for Nady to lose.
One of the team's more vocal leaders despite a prototypical easygoing, easy-to-smile California personality, he was the one seated at his stall June 10 at Yankee Stadium after the Pirates' were swept and humiliated there, shaking his head and saying, "This is bad. So bad. We're better than this."
That trait, along with other intangibles, have drawn praise from ownership on down.
Kevin McClatchy, the chief executive officer, described Nady in the spring as being "just as good a person as he is a player."
Littlefield said: "In addition to our belief that he's got more in there with the bat, he's got some leadership skills. He's a tough guy. There are a lot of good things about Xavier Nady."
And catcher Ronny Paulino, when other teammates were pointing to Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny as their choices to be the All-Star representative, pulled for Nady: "He's our MVP. What people don't know about this guy is that he's doing all this when he's hurt. We all see that, and we all appreciate it."
Nady has played through a sore left hamstring all season, one that still requires icing down but is getting better.
He sees that as simple, too.
"I'm playing every day, and this is what I've always wanted," Nady said. "I wasn't about to sit down."