Pretty much since he debuted with Cleveland back in 2020, Josh Naylor has held strong to the “Large Adult Son” moniker. His on-field intensity coupled with his off-field Canadian kindness, his performance in the 2020 playoffs, and just his overall vibe made a perfect melange for Cleveland fans to fall in love almost immediately.
That injury last year? We all felt it, and the team plainly missed his presence as the ground through a tough 2021. So when he just went nuclear to start 2022, logging a 130 wRC+ in the first half that included some wild stretches, an April .311/.326/.489 slash, a July .333/.365/.609 eruption, and at least one humbling of the Chicago White Sox. If you go to the r/WhiteSox subreddit, they call him their daddy. Which makes all of us the Southsiders’ grandparents.
Which makes this extended stretch of, if we’re being kind, mediocrity such a pain. We love this guy. He’s probably at least in part the reason why they were so comfortable dumping Franmil Reyes and certainly viewed as a core piece of the lineup. They really need him too — as timely as the lineup has been over the season, grinding out close games with bloopers, errors and good luck is the antithesis of sustainable baseball. They need Naylor to be that noisemaker, the third musketeer to go with Ramirez and Gimenez. They need him to turn us into grandparents of, ideally, the whole American League. Luckily, he might be starting to do it again.
The big thing Naylor did to have this breakout season after two sub-average seasons, was how he hit the ball. He’s increased his launch angle each year to a career-high 10.1 degrees this year, with his flyball rate at 21.1% while his grounder rate dropped below 50% for the first time, at 49.2% this year. For a guy in the upper third of the league in hard-hit rate — well, 65th percentile, but close enough — and with a very strong bat-to-ball skill, this was what he needed, and he delivered. In fact, prior to the All-Star break, his flyball rate was 37.2%, and his grounder rate at 44.8%.
Since then, Naylor has posted a 95 wRC+, with a grounder rate creeping back up to 54% while his fly ball rate has fallen to 27.6%. Oddly, his line drive rate has held basically exactly the same, 18.4%. Not only that, his hard hit rate has actually gone up considerably in the second half, from 28.4% before the break to 39.3%. These are from FanGraphs, not Statcast, so it’s not the official “95mph+”, but still. He’s hitting the ball harder than ever, yet he’s trending in the wrong direction. Odd, huh?
Part of all this is just the league adjusting to Naylor. Whenever a young guy has that breakout, they find the inevitable flaw in his game and exploit it. One of those flaws with Naylor has simply been his insane platoon splits. Even when he was cooking in the first half, he had a 73 wRC+ against lefties, which has been cut down to just 41 since the break. In the long run, I’m not too worried about that platoon split — his contact ability plus his growing strength is bound to help him be at least a league-average hitter against left-handers. But he’s been getting worse on both sides of the plate, and even against righties in the second half it’s a mere 109 wRC+. Again, a marker there is his grounder rate going from 42 to 48.1% against right-handers.
To sum it all up, it seems like they’re just getting him to drive the ball into the ground more, which makes it hard to hit doubles, dingers, and whatnot. Naylor isn’t the most disciplined hitter in the world — his 33.4% chase rate is about five points higher than league average — but he does punish fastballs, logging a .350 wOBA against them in 2022. No, what they’ve been doing is hammering him more with curveballs in the second half:
This is the one pitch that Naylor doesn’t do well on. By Baseball Savant, he has a positive run value against every pitch except the curve, and people saw that.
The splitter is in there too, but he’s seen like eight of them all year. In fact, this month the curve is the pitch he’s seen second most behind four-seamers, steadily climbing the ranks throughout the year. And he’s posting a .185 wOBA against curves while whiffing on them 25% of the time. That’s the second highest against any pitch besides sliders, but when he catches those (.358 wOBA) he does pretty well against them.
So this is one thing, I do think the curve is being used against him as pitchers back off the fastball/slider combo if they can. But there’s probably something to be said for the fact that he’s just not getting the bat to the ball like he used to. It’s harder to quantify, but there’s certainly some fatigue setting in. After a winter of rehab following that leg injury, 150ish games of baseball cannot be restful for the guy. It’s times like these I wish we had that bat speed metric that Baseball Savant debuted recently. It would be great to not have to just glean theories based on him hitting the ball with less lift now.
It may be that he’s starting to find his way back. A homer against the White Sox on Wednesday night was good and was his second in three games with a handful of hits over that stretch as well. In the long term, he’ll be just fine. In the near term, well, here’s hoping that the 2020 Naylor shows back up in the playoffs. And someone gives him some help this time around, too.