Photo Courtesy of Jed Jacobsohn
Josh Naylor Isn’t Messing Around
Even before his remarkable recovery from one of the most gruesome injuries suffered in a Major League Baseball game in recent years, Josh Naylor was an eminently easy player for the Cleveland fanbase to embrace. The level of intensity in his style of play was immediately noticeable, as was the demonstrable investment he carries in the success of his teammates. This was certainly a favorable contrast to previous first baseman/corner outfielders, who found it useful to blame chilly weather for scuffling at the plate. Fortunately, I have good news to share about Northeast Ohio’s favorite new Canadian: Josh Naylor is starting to put it together as a big league hitter.
While he currently sports a robust .364 after the west coast trip, his .375 xWOBA is actually the second highest on the club among players with at least 50 plate appearances (behind Jose Ramirez, of course) and 48th overall across the league. Naylor’s GB/FB ratio continues to be his Achilles Heel (1.91), he his currently pulling the ball at a higher percentage (51%) than his previous three seasons (39% in 2019, 34% in 2020 and 41% in 2021.) He is also barreling up balls more so than in years past as his current Barrel% now sits at 9.8% after carrying a three year average of 5.7%.
In terms of changes in approach, Naylor has actually referred to his devastating injury from last season as a “blessing in disguise” as he believes it forced him to calm down as a hitter and made him more aware in the batter’s box. When comparing his stance from last season to the current 2022 campaign, the most glaring difference is the positioning of his front foot, which leads to a more relaxed stance this season.
Naylor’s emergence serves as an even bigger boon to this lineup when the ungodly struggles of Franmil Reyes are factored into the equation. Look no further than Friday night’s game in Oakland, where Naylor, replacing Reyes in the cleanup spot, delivered the go-ahead home run in the seventh inning (pulled to right field, of course!) that proved to be the winning run to end a seven-game skid. Whether he’s playing first base, right field or the designate hitter, Josh Naylor is brimming with confidence at the plate right now and considering everything he has endured over the past calendar year, it is extremely rewarding to watch him blossom.
Photo Courtesy of Darren Yamashita
Without peeking, take a guess which qualified pitcher has the lowest xWOBA in MLB so far this season? So, the Stephan pun and photo above likely gave it away, but the correct answer is indeed Trevor Stephan. While his name has practically become synonymous with the term Rule 5 whenever he is profiled, it is difficult to overstate how rare it is for a Rule 5 draft pick like Stephan to develop into a difference maker. In fact, the last Cleveland Rule 5 draft selection to actually make the roster was back in 2009, when the Indians nabbed Hector Ambriz in that year’s Rule 5 draft. Ambriz pitched in 34 games with the Indians in 2010, where he posted a 5.35 FIP and accumulated a -0.4 fWAR before not pitching in the big leagues again until 2012 with Houston.
Stephan has not only stuck around for a second season with Cleveland, but he has been far and away the team’s most dominant reliever in the early campaign. In 10 and two-thirds innings, he has struck out 12, walked zero batters and has yet to allow a run. His Baseball Savant profile conjures up images of elevators at the Overlook Hotel with the amount of red running all over it.
The central reason cited for Stephan’s massive leap forward this season is the enhancement of his splitfinger fastball. Last season, Stephan threw the splitfinger in only 8% of his pitches, although it resulted in a 53% whiff rate and a wOBA of only .241. So far this season, Stephan has quadrupled his use of the splitfinger, as he has thrown it 32% of the time, and, well, it’s working for him quite nicely. Not a single hit has been registered off of the pitch, while it has generated a whiff% of 47%.
Stephan has created more vertical movement on his splitfinger this season, as he’s bumped up the inches of drop from 32 in 2021 to 34 so far in 2022. Stephan’s splitfinger this season represents a 6% increase in vertical movement vs. the average splitfinger across the league. While the Guardians’ bullpen features its fair share of volatility and James Karinchak’s expected return to the mound remains anyone’s guess, Trevor Stephan has seized his opportunities in high-leverage situations. So much so, that he is now deserving of an intimidating nickname. I will go ahead and nominate Stephanwolf to be the moniker he adopts, although local t-shirt vendors will ultimately have the final say on the matter.
Photo Courtesy of the Akron Beacon Journal
Your 2022 Shortstop is Andres Gimenez (Or At Least Should Be)
Speaking of seizing opportunities, upon Amed Rosario missing the past three games with a sore wrist, Andres Gimenez has moved over to his natural position at SS from 2B and performed admirably. Gimenez racked up six total hits in the Oakland series including a grand slam and two doubles. He also dazzled at SS over the weekend with brilliant plays like this one from Saturday:
While Gimenez’s offensive numbers after 19 games he’s played in are eye-popping (168 wRC+, .402 wOBA, .231 ISO) his xWOBA so far this season is only a mere .301. Perhaps, this is largely due to his below-average barrel rate (5%) or his paltry walk rate (2%.) However, on the more encouraging end of expected statistics, he’s currently in the 70th percentile overall for expected batting average. Considering his aforementioned meager BB%, maintaining a high batting average will be key for Gimenez.
With Rosario scheduled to return to the lineup on Tuesday, the focus now shifts to if Gimenez will remain at SS. The Rosario in LF experiment lasted a grand total of one whole game before that was abandoned, so the only other option to keep Rosario in the lineup and Gimenez at SS would be having Rosario be the designated hitter for most games with Reyes playing primarily at RF. The guess here is that Rosario returns to being the everyday SS until he is inevitably traded midseason since it is clear he is not considered the long-term answer at that position within the organization (and definitely not so by 120% of Guardians Twitter.) After news broke that Gabriel Arias will be out for several weeks with a fractured wrist, there now exists one less wrinkle in allowing Gimenez the chance to seize the shortstop job for this team going forward. Time to hand over the keys to Gimenez for the rest of the 2022 season. Especially if it is a brand-new Ford Bronco.