There’s no question that the Indians have an offensive problem in 2021 and I won’t attempt to sugar coat that, however, it’s not as simple as saying everyone in Cleveland’s outfield is terrible and they should have kept Tyler Naquin (.316/.435/.947 with a National League best four home runs and 13 RBI). Beyond the idea that there’s no way Naquin keeps this up, I’ve noticed in particular that Josh Naylor has had a huge disparity between ability and outcome. The chart below shows his percentile ranks in all of Major League Baseball through the first week’s worth of games and it is very strange.
If it isn’t obviously apparent, the weirdest thing here is that Naylor is barreling balls up with the best of them and has one of the hardest hit balls of the season at 114.7 MPH, yet is around league average in both average exit velocity and hard hit percent. In addition, he had chased very few balls out of the zone compared to the rest of the league, but is yet to take a walk and swings and misses with the best of them.
Despite a favorable .333 BABIP, Naylor has a .263/.263/.368 batting line with two doubles showing his only power. Interestingly, while his two strongest hits (the 114.7 single and 112.5 MPH double) were hits, the majority of his contact above 90 MPH have become outs. The video below is probably the best example of one where he went to the opposite field at 100.5 MPH with a 14 launch angle and created a routine fly out against Danny Duffy and Kansas City on April 5.
In general, it’s far too early to look deeply into any player’s performance, but the Indians’ overall poor performance at the plate has placed the outfield under a microscope. Of these, Eddie Rosario has had some positive outcomes and little was expected from the beginning of Ben Gamel. This leaves Naylor as the player with the biggest spread between floor and ceiling.
A career .288/.351/.439 hitter in the minors including an incredible 2019 season in El Paso, Naylor struggled in 2020 between both San Diego and Cleveland before being the only decent hitter in the post-season. As he was demolishing Yankee pitching to the tune of a .714/.714/1.571 slash line with a homer and three doubles in two games, the Indians finally saw Naylor approaching and exceeding the potential he showed in the minors.
Of course, if five games seems a small sample size, two games is miniscule and it could take some time to see if Naylor has truly turned over a new leaf. It is certainly a positive that Naylor is hitting the ball hard, true and to all fields early on, but his non-existence walk rate could be a problem. In his closest thing to a full season (2019), he had a 9% walk rate, then dropped to 4.8% in 2020 before disappearing completely in 2020. In the minors, Naylor never walked much, but at least held an 8.5% rate and his low strike out rate and decent power made this acceptable. In spring training this year, however, he struck out seven times to three walks in 44 at bats and he’s already lead off with four regular season K’s before his first walk.
Ranking 27th of 30 MLB in runs scored and last among teams that have played at least five games, it won’t be long before the Indians start entering panic mode. They cannot continue to rely on Jose Ramirez for a third of their offense and Roberto Perez, Cesar Hernandez, Eddie Rosario, Franmil Reyes and Andres Gimenez are likely permanent fixtures. This leaves first base, center and right for the Indians to experiment with minor league replacements. Unlike Gamel and Jake Bauers, Naylor has shown enough on the positive side of the ledger offensively to deserve continued plate appearances so we can see if his hard contact starts dropping.