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Great Expectations: Bo Knows?

How can the Guards make ‘The Leap’? One man’s bat holds the keys

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Cleveland Guardians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the first edition of “Great Expectations”. This will be a weekly column up to the start of the season where I take a more in-depth look at the Guardians, previewing and projecting outcomes for the upcoming season.

The first edition of this was an easy choice for me: Bo Naylor.

In a season that went about as poorly as conceivably possible in 2023, one bright spot shined brightest amongst it all, and that was Bo Naylor. Despite early struggles when first called up, Naylor’s adjustment to the big league level was quicker than ever imaginable. By that, I mean he didn’t just become an average starting catcher; he became a budding all-around rising star who went above and beyond even our wildest expectations. How good was he? Let’s dive into his numbers.

Bo finished the season with 230 plate appearances, one of 45 catchers to eclipse 200 PAs last season. Naylor finished top 10 in fWAR at 2.4 — despite having anywhere from roughly 100 to 400 fewer PAs than the nine players above him — with a 124 wRC+, equal to William Contreras’ wRC+ last season (Contreras led all catchers with 5.4 fWAR). That’s pretty tremendous pace, but in a vacuum, just how good was Bo from the time he was called up versus the rest of the catchers in the league? The numbers are pretty staggering.

FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) per 650 plate appearances essentially projects out how good (or slightly inflated) a players’ season was to the scale of a normal full season’s worth of plate appearances. It allows us to put every player’s production on an equal number of plate appearances which allows us to see a more effective glance at how good a player was in a season. With catchers, however, just two reached 600 PAs and only 10 eclipsed 500, so I will lower that number to 450 for this equation. For what it’s worth, the placement of the players wouldn’t change regardless of the PA total, I just feel it’s more positionally accurate to lower the total. Below is the leaderboard:

fWAR/450 — Catchers

Player PA fWAR Total fWAR/450
Player PA fWAR Total fWAR/450
William Contreras 611 5.4 4.0
Adley Rutschman 687 5.1 3.3
Cal Raleigh 569 4.7 3.7
Will Smith 554 4.4 3.6
Sean Murphy 438 4.2 4.3
Jonah Heim 501 4.1 3.7
Patrick Bailey 353 2.8 3.6
Ryan Jeffers 335 2.7 3.6
Francisco Alvarez 423 2.7 2.9
Willson Contreras 495 2.4 2.2
BO NAYLOR 230 2.4 4.7
Yainer Diaz 377 2.0 2.4
Kyle Higashioka 260 1.7 2.9
Freddy Fermin 235 1.5 2.9

Bo finished with the highest fWAR/450 by a pretty substantial margin. Bo’s power numbers were also on full display last season. Of his 47 hits, 24 of them went for extra bases. Naylor slugged 11 home runs and 13 doubles in his 230 PAs. His results were great, especially post All-Star break. Naylor’s .386 wOBA was a top 10 mark among catchers after the break, and he was still getting his feet wet in getting consistent starts early on.

Regression to the mean is on the minds of many in regards to Naylor. His second half was tremendous, but he outperformed his xwOBA by a staggering 56 points, the second highest discrepancy of any catcher with at least 75 second half PAs. Season predictors on FanGraphs like Steamer expect Bo to come back to earth this season with a predicted 111 wRC+ and 2.2 fWAR, but, while there may still be some regression to come, I don’t think it will be as sweeping or substantial as that may indicate.

Bo Naylor is an extension of his brother, but where Josh is the chaos, Bo is the calm.

In 2023, 99 players posted 200+ plate appearances with at least a 10% walk rate, and 71 of them (72%) finished with a wRC+ higher than the league average 100. Bo Naylor was one of them. Very generalized, but it bodes well given Naylor’s approach.

94 players posted an O-Swing% (swing rate at pitches outside of the zone to total pitches seen) of 25% or lower with at least 200 PA in 2023. Naylor just made that cut with exactly 25%. Of those 94, just 38 posted a Z-Swing% rate of at least 55% and Z-Contact% above 87% (league average). Bo Naylor was one of them.

Of these 38 players, just 11 of them posted 8% or better barrels per batted ball event. Bo Naylor was one of them. So, why these caveats? The answer is simple. The ability to not swing at pitches outside the zone is shown through O-Swing%. However, when you pair it with the ability to capitalize on the pitches they do swing at, Bo, as a rookie, was great at it.

The key is maximizing the great at-bat the hitter has given himself. A “sweet spot” is largely seen as a ball hit between 8 and 32 degrees of launch off the bat, and sweet spot percentage is how often a player does that among the balls they put in play.

Among catchers who saw at least 200 pitches in 2023, Naylor ranked 18th out of 59 players in batted ball events that ended in sweet spots. A perfectly respectable place for a rookie catcher, but again, post-All Star Break, Bo shined. Overall, Naylor tallied 50 “sweet spots” on the season. He racked up 41 of those after the All Star Break at a rate only bested by Omar Narvaez and Endy Rodriguez, and he slugged 1.415 on such batted ball events, ninth among catchers.

A major development we will need to see from Naylor is him tapping more into his raw power. Naylor was a 60-grade raw power prospect, and while the extra-base power was there, the exit velos were not. Naylor’s 87.7 mph average exit velocity was middle of the pack amongst catchers and towards the bottom third of the league overall. Again, Naylor’s maximization of the good pitches he saw made his rookie season a resounding success. Now imagine the raw power comes along with it? The sophomore year for one of the game’s brightest young catchers could change the Guardians.

As it stands right now, Cleveland is projected to win between 76-81 games depending on your sports book of choice. However, if Naylor blossoms in the way I think he will, don’t be too surprised to see your Guardians near the top of the division come October.