February 27, 2024

Josh Naylor

Remember the 2022 playoffs? I sure do. It was a brief period with some high highs (Oscar Gonzalez extra inning walk off home run, Oscar Gonzalez walk-off single) and some low lows (blowing a 2-1 ALDS lead, Aaron Civale‘s disastrous Game 5 first inning). And while O-Gon was front and center for much of last year’s drama, another player that embodied the highs and lows really well was Josh Naylor.

Naylor had one of the hallmark moments of the post-season when he homered off of Yankees ace Gerrit Cole and proceeded to do the “Rock the Baby” celebration while exuberantly rounding the bases. But despite the big blast and a solid 2022 regular season campaign (.256 AVG, 20 homers, good for an OPS+ of 121), Naylor struggled throughout the post-season, hitting just .193 and striking out 6 times without walking.

Naylor’s futility came in large part due to the steady diet of left-handed pitching he would encounter throughout October. Over the course of seven games, Naylor would face Shane McClanahan (1 for 3), Garrett Cleavinger (0 for 1, K), Brooks Raley (0 for 1, K), Wandy Peralta (0 for 5, double play, K) and Nestor Cortes (1 for 5). He would go a combined 2 for 15 against these pitchers with just two singles. Further, it felt like every key opportunity the Guardians had late in a ballgame against the Yankees in the ALDS would ultimately lead to Naylor being at the plate and Yankees manager Aaron Boone making the slow walk to the mound to replace his current pitcher with Wandy Peralta. It was maddening, mostly because it worked.

Results don’t always match decision-making (see: a bunch of times Terry Francona has gone to one of the better bullpens in baseball with a close lead this year), but opposing managers’ decisions to send lefties to the mound to face Naylor was also decision-making based on facts and reality. Naylor hit just .173 against left-handed pitching in 2022 and slugged an abysmal .236. He struck out 34 times in 67 at bats. I mean, those are Mike Zunino numbers.

So, when the calendar turned to 2023 and Guardians manager Terry Francona continued to force feed Naylor into the starting lineup against left-handed pitching, many fans thought the man had lost his mind. When he publicly stated he thought Naylor was a hitter that was better than a platoon candidate, some fans were ready to have him committed. The struggles continued too. Through May 11th of this year, Naylor hit .111 in 28 plate appearances against lefties. He also slugged .111, meaning all three hits he did secure were singles. The woes continued and fans continued to ask about how long this could go on, especially with what seemed to be an obvious platoon partner in Gabriel Arias sitting on the bench.

Then, on Friday May 12 the Guardians hosted the Los Angeles Angels at Progressive Field. The Angels sent lefty Tyler Anderson to the mound, and again, Francona penciled Naylor into the number five spot in the lineup. And at first, we got more of the same. Naylor would go 0 for 2 (though he would record his first walk of the season vs. a lefty) before the Angels turned to their bullpen in a tied 3-3 ballgame in the 7th. Another lefty- Matt Moore– would enter and pitch a scoreless 7th before coming back out to face Naylor to start the 8th, still in a tie ballgame.

And in that moment, everything changed.

 

Naylor blasted a 3-2 fastball over the right-center field fence. It was a monster, 442 foot home run that would give the Guardians the lead. Ultimately, the bullpen would falter that night and the Angels would steal a 5-4 victory, but seemingly, with that one swing, Josh Naylor’s fortunes changed against left-handed pitching.

Since that fateful day, Naylor is hitting .345 against left-handed pitching and slugging .638 in 61 plate appearances. Those numbers are good for a 176 weighted Runs Created+. For reference, only one player has a wRC+ on the total season that is better than 176- potential AL MVP Shohei Ohtani. Admittedly, small samples can cause outliers, but that’s the point. Naylor’s production level vs. lefties recently has been an outlier in the best way.

And just because the sample is smaller doesn’t necessary mean we should hand-wave away the Mississauga Masher’s success. You may recall a post I made recently about the Guardians’ improved offense and how we can test how much of their success is based on luck by using Statcast’s expected statistics. Again, the basic premise is that Statcast measures the quality of contact on any batted ball based on historical data and use that data to give each batted ball its own probability of being a hit (or homer, or double, etc) or not. We then total up all of a player’s batted balls over time and are able to give them an expected batting average, slugging percentage and weighted on base average based on their quality of contact.

Anyway, for the entirety of 2022 and through May 11 of this year, Naylor’s expected batting average against lefties was .189. His expected slugging was .286. This sounds very familiar. These numbers sound like his real-life numbers from early this year and last post-season. However, starting with the day that Naylor took Matt Moore yard, his expected batting average against lefties is .376. His expected slugging is .696. Both of those figures are higher than his outlier real-world stats that we were just talking about a minute ago. That means that, if anything, while Naylor has been on a torrid pace vs. left-handed pitching lately, he’s actually somehow also gotten a little bit unlucky. More importantly, what this really means is that he really has been tearing the cover off the ball.

This all lends itself to a deeper question though. That question is to what do we attribute this sudden change? Surely, when that 442 foot blast left Naylor’s bat on a picturesque Friday night in Cleveland a little more than two months ago, that had to build some confidence, but can that really be the whole story? I imagine it isn’t and with a little more digging through the data, a couple more things become apparent.

For one, regardless of which hand is being used by the pitcher, Naylor knows how to hit a fastball (I’m going to be largely referring to four-seamers, they are the most common Naylor has seen). This didn’t shine through in his 2022 thru May 11th results, as Naylor hit just .184 on left-handed fastballs during that time frame, but those results seemed to be misleading. Naylor’s expected batting average (xBA) against lefty fastballs was a much more respectable .268. He also had an expected slugging (xSLG) that was completely adequate at .479. He wasn’t beating the world or anything, but he wasn’t embarrassing himself in the way that you may think.

Naylor’s real-life bad luck would continue in 2023’s early going. He wouldn’t record a hit against a left-handed fastball through May 11, but he would hit five different balls at an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher and would end that time period with an expected batting average of .355 and expected slugging percentage of .603. So really, he was getting robbed. Beyond the luck, what I am really trying to get at is that Naylor was hitting fastballs and he was hitting them really well, even from left-handed pitchers.

What Naylor hadn’t been good at however, was hitting left-handed sliders. He saw 167 of them between the start of 2022 and May 11 this year and put together an xBA of .158 and an xSLG of a paltry .198 during that time. Couple that with a K-rate of 39% and you can see why Aaron Boone wore out a path between the dugout and mound going to Wandy Peralta every game.

Fortunately for the Guardians, that strategy doesn’t seem to be working anymore. Since May 11, Naylor is hitting .286 against left-handed sliders and is slugging .619 (regular stats). His expected stats suggest he should have a higher batting average and perhaps fewer extra base hits, but overall, he has been leaps and bounds better at punishing these pitches.

Even more staggering, his K-rate on lefty sliders is all the way down to just 4.8%. The recipe for this drastic change in K-rate is the heavy amount of sliders he has been able to put in play effectively this year. Between 2022 and 2023’s early going, Naylor was whiffing on about 17% of the sliders he saw while only putting about 10% of them in play. Since May 11, Naylor has whiffed slightly less (12%) but has put a significantly higher 30% of the sliders he has seen in play. Put more succinctly, he has shrunk his swings and misses and tripled the number of sliders he has put in play. Interestingly, Naylor also has gone from about 43% of the sliders he has seen being taken for balls to only about 32%.

What does all this scary math mean? It means pitchers are putting more sliders into the strike-zone and because they are in the strike-zone, as opposed to being chase pitches, Naylor has been able to put better swings on them. Why is this happening? I can’t say for certain, but I think I have a pretty good educated guess.

As stated earlier, Naylor is a good fastball hitter. It might not have shone through in his outcomes last season or earlier this year, but he can hit a fastball from a lefty. He was actually smashing them in the early going, but making outs. However, if a civilian like me can go on the internet and find this information out, you know teams know about it. I’m sure its not secret to baseball’s scouting departments that Naylor hits fastballs regardless of the pitcher.

Naturally then, pitchers are going to make an adjustment. As we get deeper into 2023 it became apparent that Naylor is mashing fastballs and it becomes clear that even if you aren’t a lefty, you can’t throw fastball strikes in order to try to get ahead against the Guardians first baseman. Before May 11, 57% of the first pitches in an at bat from lefties that Naylor saw were some sort of fastball and 25% were sliders. Since that date 43.5% of first pitches Naylor has seen from lefties have been some sort of fastball. But if you split up the different types of fastballs (two-seam, four-seam, cutter, etc.) the most common first pitch that Naylor has seen from lefties? You guessed it. Sliders. 35.5% of the time.

So in short, lefty pitchers did what pitchers do. They made an adjustment. If Naylor is going to hit fastballs, then the strategic decision is being made to not try to get ahead of him with fastballs lest you get the Matt Moore treatment. Rather, since Naylor has a historical trend of struggling with sliders, that is what he is seeing more early on in counts against lefties. The problem (for those lefties) is that Naylor has also been discerning at the plate, spitting on wayward sliders early in the count and forcing pitchers to throw strikes. As part of the trend for the post May 11 time frame, he is indeed seeing sliders down and away still from lefties, but more of them are down and away in the zone as opposed to outside of the zone. And that little bit of change in location has been the difference that’s allowed Naylor to square up the ball better.

I would suspect that this trend can last. Of course, there is always another adjustment that can be made by both pitchers and hitters alike. Ultimately, this game at the highest level is in large part about the adjustments that your opponent makes to what you are doing well.

But Naylor has a really great basis for continued success as long as he continues to punish fastballs (regardless of handedness) and remains patient early in the count, making pitchers bring their breaking pitches into the zone. If he can hold onto those two principles and make left-handers bring him hittable breaking pitches then he is going to be a really tough out. Truthfully, I see no reason why the new and improved Josh Naylor cannot be here to stay.

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