Coming into Thursday night’s game against the Mariners, Josh Naylor was sitting at exactly 500 career plate appearances. Lazy shorthand calls that a season — and he’s played 165 games in his career anyway — so it seems almost fair to start passing some kind of judgment on him.
It would be an unfair judgment of course since we’re talking about bits of three seasons between two teams, two leagues, and a globe-spanning pandemic. That’s not a fair situation to judge any young player, but the .251/.307/.386 line is there. It’s not exactly uplifting, especially when you’re considering a guy who’s supposed to be somewhere in the center of your offense’s production.
You know what though? I’m feeling pretty good about Josh Naylor right now.
Not every 23-year-old is going to post Troutian numbers. Baseball takes a while, and as we’ve all gotten used to with Cleveland, the growth can come in fits and starts. We need to see things that are encouraging — bits of positivity that, over time, blend into a valuable player for a few years.
Those little points of good are showing themselves here and there, and the consistency is growing over time. For instance, only 24 players across the game have a higher max exit velocity than Naylor’s 114.7 mph, a single he rocketed off the Royals’ Jacob Junis. It was a grounder, but it was still to the opposite side of the infield. In fact, the only person on the team that hits the ball more consistently hard than Naylor’s 90 mph average exit velocity are Franmil Reyes (84.3), the contact-averse Roberto Pérez (91.5), and José Ramírez (90.5). For the most part, this is the crowd I want him in. It creates a nice baseline for him to grow from and ultimately start launching bombs from.
As we’ve learned in the Baseball Savant era though, hitting the ball consistently hard isn’t the end-all, be-all. It’s good to do, but it doesn’t always lead to consistent success. Which is basically what Naylor is right now — inconsistent. He’s streaky, getting into funks and exploding suddenly with a double off the wall or a multi-hit game or two. One minute he’s working the count like a ten-year vet, the next he’s swinging at something that’s definitely not a strike. It’s not always great, but sometimes it’s amazing. That’s all you can hope for from a young player with, again, essentially one year under his belt that’s broken up over three separate, weird seasons. Players with higher average exit velocities do have higher BABIPs typically, but beyond that, there’s so much more we need to see.
Naylor does other things well, though. He’s in the 68th percentile in whiff rate, the 55th percentile in barrel rate, and the 61st percentile in strikeout rate, as well. So he makes contact, he doesn’t strike out too much, and he gets decent wood on the ball. These aren’t elite numbers, but edging past above average is the first step.
My brain demands that I draw some kind of parallel, and at least in outcomes, I’m drawn to a very young Michael Brantley. Between his age 22 and 23 years, Brantley played 100 games with 446 plate appearances and hit 264/.313/.333 while walking 6.7% of the time and striking out 12.7% of the time. Aside from the strikeout rate, these numbers are a smidge worse than what we’ve seen from Naylor, though it’s not a 1-to-1 comparison. Where Brantley had the preternatural talent for elite bat-to-ball ability — consistently a 90% contact guy with only middling power at the time — Naylor has markedly higher exit velocity numbers and still makes contact 80% of the time and 89% of the time when the pitch is in the zone. There’s a bit of give and take there, but I think it starts to paint a picture of where Naylor could grow.
I could sit here and slice or dice bits of Naylor's numbers to make people think he’s better than he is. Like how in the last two weeks he’s holding an .811 OPS, or even how if you toss out the first ten games of the season his OPS is .767 and he’s averaging 47 doubles and 17 home runs over a 162 game season. This is intellectually dishonest though. At the end of the day, we’re talking about a 23-year-old who hits the ball incredibly hard, makes solid contact, doesn’t strike out too much, and needs to work on drawing a walk or two. I think we’re all in agreement that this is kind of a stealth rebuild or retooling year, and Cleveland lucked out because the MLB messed with the ball again and made good offensive teams that loved the dinger (read: Twins) into garbage, while those with good pitching just got better. It’s a good opportunity to contend while giving young guys room to grow.
In all this, Naylor is rated about an average hitter with a 98 rBAT+ (Baseball Reference’s normalized batting rating), and showing flashes of being better. This is what we want out of him. He’s there to hit, and he’s starting to do that with regularity. He’s getting better as the year wears on, and he’ll be in Cleveland for most of the rest of the decade.
No, he’s not perfect, nobody but Bieber or Ramírez are on this team. But he’s on his way to being something special. What that might be, we’ll have to see.