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Don’t let one home run celebration ruin the perception of Josh Naylor's incredible comeback season

Naylor rocking his little son while rounding the bases didn’t ruin the ALDS, and the Guardians probably wouldn’t even have been there without him.

Cleveland Guardians v. Chicago White Sox Photo by MLB Photos via Getty Images

“Incredible” is a loaded word here, I admit.

Josh Naylor was hardly incredible on the stat sheet. He was virtually useless against left-handed pitchers, and his 117 wRC+ from both sides of the plate isn’t good enough for true MVP consideration. But when it came to picking a top-10 Guardians list for 2022, Naylor wasn’t a hard choice.

The story of Naylor’s campaign — and what actually made it incredible — starts last June when he collided with Ernie Clement in the outfield of Target Field and suffered a horrific leg injury that prematurely ended his season after 69 games. We learned later that he fractured his ankle, but anything could have come to mind watching him squirm in pain a second after the collision. It was clear from the moment it happened that he was going to miss a lot of time. It looked like the kind of injury that guys just don’t fully recover from.

But he sure did.

Before he became the guy that wanted “all the smoke” and wasn’t afraid of any big moments, the injury kept him out for the first couple weeks of 2022; he did not debut until April 15 against the Giants. Merely playing again less than a full calendar year after he was writhing in pain from a fractured ankle was enough to consider his season to be “incredible,” but it’s what he continued to do day in and day out for a young team that cements it. For me, anyway.

Pick any big moment in the Guardians’ magical 2022 season, and Naylor is probably there. His pair of home runs on May 9 against the White Sox was arguably the gelling moment of the year — I’d also argue for Myles Straw climbing the fence in New York, but that’s neither here nor there.

How about June 29 against the Twins, when he hit a ball 358 feet to left field (in an eerily similar location to another legendary Cleveland home run), and headbutted his manager so hard following his run around the bases that Tito opted to wear a helmet for future walk-off celebrations?

And of course, when the Guards were down in their potential series-clinching game against the Yankees in the ALDS, he hit a lead-off home run against Gerrit Cole in the fourth and broke into the now infamous “rock the baby” celebration around the bases. Naylor, staring directly at his own dugout, pretended to rock a baby and yelled “that’s my little fucking son” before holding his hand low to the ground to show how short his little son was.

It was great, I don’t care about the end outcome of the game or the series. It’s a celebration Naylor himself has done countless times over the season, and even Kwan did the second part of the celebration (holding his hand toward the ground) when he homered off Cole in Game 1. But the Yankees and their fans decided to get pissy about Josh’s, probably because they were walked off on the day before and felt like their season was on the ropes. That doesn’t make it any less great.

Josh Naylor’s utter lunatic antics were the fire that this team seemed to need to get out of their own slumps. As the league’s youngest team, any kind of spark is welcome when things get rough, and Naylor gave it to them several times.

Now, with all that said, let’s get to the nitty gritty of Naylor’s first (mostly) full season in Cleveland.

This was, for various reasons, the closest Naylor has come to a full regular season’s playing time worth of baseball, and he handled it quite well all things considered. He absolutely cratered in September, though, as he began chasing the ball too much and it looked like fatigue from an offseason of rehabbing his injured ankle was setting in. Luckily everyone else on the team had a superb month and carried them into the postseason, so it didn’t have much of an impact — but it’s still A Thing.

Curiously enough, during this slump, Naylor’s contact rate actually skyrocketed to 89% at its peak in early September (his season average was 81.5%). The thing is, he was making more contact, but it wasn’t great. His ground ball rate also peaked at 62.7%, which is not a recipe for success for Naylor, even before he was running on a bum ankle.

Making better contact doesn’t help if you’re chasing and hitting everything into the ground.

Naylor finished the season slashing a career-best .256/.319/.452 with a 7.6% walk rate and 16.1% strikeout rate. Add on a career-high 20 home runs and it was the best season by a large margin. It’s the kind of season that intrigued the Guardians enough to acquire him in part of the Mike Clevinger deal back in 2020.

While Naylor made decent contact in most quadrants of the strike zone, he flourished on balls up and on the outer edge of the zone, where he had a wOBA of .585 against those particular pitches. Inside was another issue, however.

If it’s middle-middle or up-and-away, Naylor is probably going to crush it.
Baseball Savant

As well as not making as good of contact on pitches he had to turn on, he was a whiff machine on anything down in the zone, particularly down and in.

Naylor had an issue chasing the ball in 2022
Baseball Savant

It’s sort of a weird dynamic for a guy who was dramatically better against right-handers (.363 wOBA) than lefties (.241 wOBA), with the thinking that same-handed pitches would likely throw stuff breaking away from him. He’s just not good down there against either side and when we look at his swings and misses against each side individually, the story becomes clear.

Of the 511 pitches from lefties that Naylor saw this season, 146 of them did indeed come in that down-and-away zone. That is to say, mostly sliders and stuff going away from the left-handed batter. No other zone had more than 65 pitches, and those were up and in, probably to reset his eye line for the killer away pitch.

This is what we in the biz call “having a plan of attack.”
Baseball Savant

Naylor swung and missed at those away pitches from lefties 64.7% of the time, and even the 15 pitches that somehow found their way into his beloved up-and-away zone were swung and missed on 75% of the time.

Simply put, Naylor cannot see lefties well. He’s bad, like really bad. It’s why he slugged just .236 against southpaws compared to .522 against right-handers. I may bemoan Terry Francona for seemingly needlessly platooning young bats when they come up, but this is a case where a guy clearly needs it, and not platooning him might have hurt them in the postseason.

Now granted, as Chris Davies said in his ALDS write-up last week, it’s not like Francona had much better to work with. There’s no Brandon Guyer or Jordan Luplow waiting on the bench to come in and kill lefties, and if anyone could overcome dramatically awful splits in a clunch moment, I’d believe in Naylor, too.

Josh Naylor proved this season that he belongs. It’s been a slow burn from the Clevinger trade to now, but he has emerged as a real power threat and emotional heart for the Guardians going forward. Just, maybe, think about getting him a platoon partner.

Josh Naylor’s 2022 stats

PA HR SB BB% K% Slash wRC+ WAR
PA HR SB BB% K% Slash wRC+ WAR
498 20 6 7.6% 16.1% .256/.318/.452 117 1.7

Total MVP points: 13
First-place MVP votes: 0

We’re reviewing (almost) all the Guardians players from 2022 now through November, starting with the top-10 MVPs as voted on by eight Covering the Corner staff members. Players were awarded points based on their one through 10 individual rankings and were ranked as such. You can find all the Year in Review posts here.