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Josh Naylor found a new level

He hasn’t made The Leap, but he’s making his way

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cleveland Guardians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

When you spend most of your time watching a baseball team whose entire offensive philosophy seems to be centered on frustration of an opposing team and fanbase, it’s probably fair that there will be stretches that make you have to experience that, too. It’s only fair, and this is where the Guardians offense has been seemingly for the first two months of the year.

We could get mad, grumpy, or depressed about it, but the magic of the slap-hitting shit goblin is one you have to embrace, even as it burns you. All that said, the last few weeks have been a total blast for any Cleveland baseball enthusiast, particularly because our best big boy, our perfect firebrand Canuck, Josh Naylor, has been cooking. We wanted him to get good, and between last year and now it feels like this is the man we can love.

For his first year or so with Cleveland, Naylor oozed potential, looking every way the future slugger we all wanted. The power numbers - in fact really any of the counting or results rate stats - were lacking, but the frame, the bat-to-ball skills, and the vigor that he approaches life with all told a story of a future offensive engine. He boosted his OPS+ by 30 points to 121, he walked more, struck out less, and his power markers — hard-hit rate, home run rate, and exit velocity — all took a smidge of a bump. Seeing a .256/.319/.452 line from your current and future 1B/DH isn’t ideal, but considering the growth he’d shown from 2021 to ‘22 was encouraging and exciting for what was to come.

This is where we enter the realities of sport, and of humans in general. The dream scenario was that Naylor would build some muscle, get stronger, and turn into the 35-40 home run guy we wanted. The garbage boys of last year were going to be a thing of the past as Naylor, Andrés Giménez, and the newly added Josh Bell would surround José Ramírez and the four of them would hit like 120 home runs or something. That’s how it goes, right? Players get incrementally better, each year getting some percentage better and make a predictively better impact right up until they hit 32. Then they get incrementally worse and fade out at 39. You know, the career of every player ever.

That’s not what happened with Naylor, or any of the guys we talk about — or basically anyone for that matter. Baseball is hard, and getting more than just a smidge better year over year is tough, often impossible. Especially when you spent one whole year only having a leg and a half to play on. It was fun to think he’s made the big leap, but that’s not what was realistic.

Saying all that, though, is to discount what Naylor has been doing, especially of late. He’s got a 1.008 over his last four weeks of ball; he posted an .893 OPS in May, .993 so far in June, and hit seven homers the last two weeks. He’s been absolutely mashing after a dismal start to the season, and it’s done nothing but reawaken those whispering dreams.

It’s cool to see what Naylor doing now; what he could be if he hits his ceiling. He’s a cool guy, certainly has the ego of a superstar but with the heart of a teddy bear, and I’d love for him to just make that mega-leap to become a David Ortiz kind of hitter and spend the next decade or so telling every other team just how much of the smoke he wants (all of it) and precisely what they can kiss (his grits, of course). Baseball as a whole would benefit from a psychotic, maple-blooded monster gleefully bashing baseballs and living his best life.

And maybe that will happen, I don’t know. He’s still got those same markers that made me so excited to watch his growth when he first came over from San Diego. It doesn’t have to happen, though. He’s just already very good, and settled into a nice little place. Over the last calendar year, he’s hitting .265/.321/.450 — solid but not great — and since the start of 2021 he’s 17% better than league average by Rbat+ and holds a roughly 2:1 K/BB ratio. Results-wise, he’s basically the same hitter he was a year ago. This is what baseball growth actually looks like.

Baseball isn’t a game of trends, not at the micro level with each player. Nobody just gets incrementally better. We aren’t all Rocky running up the steps, each day a bit closer to the top like clockwork. Sometimes you just take an extra couple of steps to get there, with a few delays along the way. Naylor is a great example. His numbers are close to what he was doing last year, and if you take all his numbers since the start of 2022 over a 162-game average we’re talking 25 homers and 115 RBI with a .777 OPS. That’s what we want, right?

Even beyond that, there are murmurs in the background that make you think maybe he’s going to make some kind of jump. For instance, his fly ball rate has bumped about four points to 25.2% while his grounder rate has sunk nearly nine points to 40.9%. He’s also recording a career-high hard-hit rate at 46.8%, best by nearly four points. These are trends that speak to a growing power hitter, finding his place and forging his way.

That’s not to say the outburst will happen this year. The last month and change have been wonderful, and a great hint of what Naylor could be. He’s even lifted his OPS against lefties by 112 points over last year. It’s still .624, but being just kind of bad instead of utterly dreadful is still growth. It has to be, otherwise what are any of us doing here?

We’re at a high water mark offensively right now. It might — and will probably — back off a bit, but I don’t think any of that will be Naylor dropping off a cliff. He’s still 26, and this is a kind of consolidation year for him. He’s building that new base for the next launch, that’s how to look at it. And if that’s not the case, at least he’s still just a pretty darn good hitter. Eight more like him, and we’re cooking with gas.