Calling Josh Naylor’s short time in Cleveland anything short of miserable would be charitable. His OPS is worse than most of the starting lineup’s on-base percentage, he finally recorded an extra-base knock weeks after the trade, and he’s walked just twice in 34 plate appearances.
It’s hard to be that torn up about the performance of a 23-year-old with all of 350 plate appearances in his entire Major League career, but amid the haul Cleveland brought back from San Diego for Mike Clevinger, this was supposed to be the guy that helped the offense now, that solidified their spot at the top of the division. Instead, the team has slid to third, suffered its longest losing streak in seven years, and the offense doesn’t look any better than before the trade. Naylor was supposed to be something, but at this point, he’s little more than just another in a series of depressing at-bats at the back half of the lineup.
Maybe it’s not all bad, though. Admittedly it would be wonderful if Naylor came over and tore the cover off the ball. But the trade being what it is, and this franchise being who they are, the plan was as much for the future as it was for right now. Naylor was supposed to be more the latter, but we’re going to be seeing his name for at least the next half-decade. He’s far from a polished product, but there are some things to be interested in, or at least that caught my eye as familiar to some players we know and love.
Josh Naylor plate discipline comps
I know what you’re thinking — this guy is crazy. These are two of the best hitters Cleveland has seen in the last decade. And that’s incredibly true. Heck, there was even a point - 2016 - where José Ramírez almost perfectly the MVP candidate version of Brantley. He’s changed, but he made a leap after having a very similar profile to what Naylor is showing now. Specifically, they’re all great at making contact, they go after the pitch when it’s in the zone. A nice plus to that, unlike the other guys, as a prospect Naylor was noted for having a good amount of power.
Now, this doesn’t mean that Naylor is going to turn into either of these guys. He swings at pitches outside of the zone more than the other two, and his walk rate is certainly not what you’d want. When Ramírez was just breaking in though, he walked 4.9% of the time in 2014 and then 9% in 2015, right around where Naylor has been in his brief time in the majors. It does take time, after all. He, like Brantley before him, had a preternatural talent for making content. In Naylor’s case, his swinging strike rate would be around the top 20 in baseball if he qualified for the batting title, while his contact rate is right where Ramírez is at 12th best, and his in-zone contact rate would rank top five in all of baseball. Even his contact rate on pitches outside of the zone is top 20.
This doesn’t mean anything by itself. It’s a simple data point, one small attribute that doesn’t do much to tell any kind of a story. I have theories, though. Some more valid than others. I like a high contact rate in young hitters — especially those with a bunch of power potential.
Look at Brantley. He was a guy who could barely crack the .750 mark with his OPS for the first few years of his career (when they thought he was a center fielder) and had a slugging percentage in the high three’s. Then he blossomed. He always made contact, he just got better at using the sweet part of the bat to do it. And he never had 70-grade potential power like Naylor has been rated at. That’s not to say it’s for sure with Naylor, but I’d rather a young hitter make a ton of weak contact and look a bit disappointing than swing and miss a lot and just look lost.
It’s disappointing what Naylor has done so far this year, but there’s nothing to be done about that now. Ostensibly he came over to help right now, but the number of guys who are his age or younger and adding to their teams’ offenses have names like Acuña, Tatis, or Soto. It should have been clearer from the get-go that he wasn’t going to be a huge jolt immediately, he’s more someone that eliminates a major negative. That’s not flashy or neat or cool, but if he can show the same kind of maturation and growth that guys like Ramírez and Brantley did, he’d be a typical modern Cleveland developmental success.
The future of Naylor and the Indians is muddled, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a twinkling of light.