So, I did a stupid, stupid thing earlier this season.
Before April was even over, I was considering the Guardians’ signing of Mike Zunino a success. The truth is, a hot start was only that, a hot start. The wool was over my eyes. Mike Zunino exited April with a .837 OPS and, to me, that was a sign that the Guardians had the catcher position figured out for as long as they needed it to be figured out in 2023. Never mind the fact that his OPS had been going down every day since the middle of the month. Never mind that his Statcast profile suggested he was getting lucky (I even alluded to this in my article). Never mind that he was in the top three in both passed balls and wild pitches allowed. Things were looking good.
Man, was I wrong. Zunino has been an absolute dud since mid-April. His OPS since April 16th? .466. He’s hit .157 with four extra-base hits over 27 games played during this time period. He’s struck out in a staggering 47.2% of his at-bats. No one else with 70 plate appearances or more since April 16th has struck out at that rate… he’s the highest by a full five percentage points.
Zunino has also continued to be abysmal as a catcher. He’s been behind the plate for a combination of 21 passed balls and wild pitches over the course of the season. That total is the third highest among MLB catchers. To make matters worse, both catchers ahead of him have caught 90 or more innings than he has. Additionally, his catcher’s ERA of 4.64 is nearly a run higher than the Guardians pitchers’ ERA, suggesting that his game-calling and handling of the Guardians staff isn’t as strong as the team’s other catchers.
Speaking of, the other full-time catcher on the Guardians roster hasn’t been productive offensively either. Do you think Zunino’s .466 OPS since April 16th is bad? Try .309. For the full season! There are batting averages in baseball that are higher than Cam Gallagher‘s OPS. To his credit, he hasn’t allowed nearly twenty wild pitches and has a strong Catcher’s ERA of 2.69, but still. He might have more luck swinging a wet noodle up there at the plate. .309?!?!?!
David Fry is also on the roster and listed as a catcher, fulfilling the third catcher’s role that Meibrys Viloria filled earlier this year. Trying to make anything out of Fry’s performance in the majors to date would be even more whimsical than the distinctions I made about Zunino in April. Fry has 15 at-bats in the majors right now. He’s been okay- mostly just filling in when the other catchers have been pinch hit for (considering how poor their offensive performance has been, you’d think that’d be more often). Truthfully, Fry has been entirely harmless. But quite frankly, he’s also had little to no impact.
So with the current catching situation laid out, there is one gigantic question standing over top of it: Why on God’s green earth is Bo Naylor still at AAA Columbus?
Take Zunino and Gallagher’s OPS and combine them. Naylor’s 907 OPS this year in the minors is only fifteen points lower. Again, that’s compared to both of the Guardians’ main backstops combined! In his last 30 games, Naylor has slashed .266/.398/.550. with seven home runs, 23 RBI and 24 walks. The technical term for what he has done over the last five weeks is called “tearing it up.”
Zunino and Gallagher were brought in so that Naylor wouldn’t need to be rushed to the majors this year. That obviously hasn’t gone well. Naylor seems like nearly a finished product at the plate with the Guardians even feeling strongly enough about him to put him on the playoff roster last year. Still, the organization understandably felt that Naylor needed more catcher seasoning.
I admit that it’s hard to get a handle on how Naylor is calling games and handling a staff when he plays two hours south in Columbus and there are only so many hours in the day to watch baseball. There doesn’t seem to be a way to pull his catcher’s ERA from the International League. The Clippers’ pitching staff ERA is 4.85, very middle of the road among the league (9th out of 20), so it’s likely he isn’t doing that bad of a job, but it’s not really certain. What we do know is that Naylor has only allowed two passed balls and his caught-stealing rate at AAA is the exact same as Gallagher’s in the majors (17%, which would tie him for 22nd out of 40 MLB catchers with 20 attempts).
There isn’t a ton to go off of, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Naylor is still pretty raw behind the plate. I think with the data we have we can’t assume anything more than that. At this point though, with how putrid the Guardians’ catchers have been offensively, what could be the harm of his promotion? Naylor should have a good support system in the majors between coach Sandy Alomar (one of the best catchers of his time and a strong member of the coaching staff) and either (or both) of Zunino and Gallagher that he can learn from. I could totally see him struggling behind the plate at times, but is there any chance he is actually worse than Zunino has been to this point? Really?
It feels worth the risk. I’m not even saying this from a perspective of desperation. This doesn’t feel like a “we’re 5 games under .500, we need to change for the sake of change” decision. It feels more like a decision that is right for everyone involved. Naylor has earned this chance. Zunino and Gallagher have done whatever the opposite of “earned” (squandered?) is with their chance. I’m not sure what more we can learn from the current lay of the land.
It’s time to promote Bo Naylor. Honestly, it’s probably past time.