Not only is Josh Naylor back, but he is back with a vengeance.
After making history last night in the Cleveland Guardians’ 12-9 come-from-behind win over the Chicago White Sox in extra innings, becoming the first player in MLB history to record 8 RBI in the eighth inning or later, Naylor is slashing a career-best .338/.370/.574 in 73 plate appearances.
One year removed from a horrific injury that cost him most of last season, Naylor is already one of the best stories in baseball. But what is driving his surge in offensive production?
The Athletic’s Zack Meisel wrote earlier this week about the Guardians’ approach at the plate this season, crediting new hitting coach Chris Valaika with helping the organization establish an offensive identity. Meisel mentioned that Valaika has preached the importance of using the entire field, quoting him as saying, “You have to use the whole field to earn the whole field.”
Josh Naylor seems to have gotten the message.
In each of his first three seasons in the big leagues, Naylor was hitting the ball straight at least 43.2% of the time. This season, he is pulling the ball 42.4% of the time and using the opposite field 28.8% of the time, hitting the ball straight a career-low 28.8% of the time. Naylor is also getting under the ball less (a career-low 15.3% of batted balls) and posting career-highs in solid contact percentage (10.2%) and barrel percentage (10.2%).
If you look at the zone breakdown for expected batting average from last season, courtesy of Baseball Savant, Naylor had holes in his swing in the upper and lower sections of the strike zone:
Now compare that to the zone breakdown from this season:
Naylor is feasting on the inside of the strike zone, especially on pitches low and inside, which lines up with the fact that he is currently pulling the ball 42.4% of the time. But he is also faring better against pitches up in the zone, particularly on the outer half of the plate.
It’s not as if he is being pitched to differently this season. Naylor is seeing fastballs slightly more than usual (54% of the time compared to about 50% in each of the last three seasons), because he is currently teeing off on breaking pitches (.429 BA) and offspeed pitches (.385 BA). But looking at that zone breakdown above, where are you going to pitch to him? Are you going to live exclusively on fastballs in the low and outside corner of the strike zone?
These are the percentage of pitches he saw in each zone last season:
No dramatic differences from one season to the next. It’s his confidence that has changed. Last season, he was living predominantly in the middle of the strike zone:
This season, albeit with a much smaller sample size, he is being much more aggressive up in the strike zone and obviously having more success. For example, guess where Liam Hendriks’ fastball was last night before Naylor turned it into a grand slam? The upper part of the strike zone.
It remains to be seen whether Naylor can sustain his current torrid pace at the plate, but it’s clear that getting away from being a straightaway hitter and expanding his strike zone to pull the ball or hit it to the opposite field has made him a more dynamic threat for the Guardians’ lineup.