The Cleveland Guardians, Small Samples, and What to Watch
In merely 16 games, has anything been truly revealed about Guardians baseball?
Photo Courtesy of the Akron Beacon Journal
At the time of this post, the Guardians have existed in their new form for a mere 16 regular season games, and their leader in plate appearances, Jose Ramirez, has 69. For the minor league side, the samples are similar, and in many cases smaller. But as with any season, it is that time where we ask ourselves, what is real?
Is Owen Miller an impact bat? What is the ceiling on Steven Kwan? Is Shane Bieber breaking? Is Aaron Civale healthy? Is Gabriel Arias ready? Who might be breaking out in the minors?
Of course, these questions are unanswerable. We may have an inkling, we may have an expectation but the sample space is too small. However, we can start to say whether this is what a breakout or a collapse might look like, and what we should be tracking as the season progresses. With that in mind a few observations.
Is Bo Naylor breaking out?
Photo courtesy of the Akron Beacon Journal
In 2019, Bo Naylor, was a 19 year-old former first round pick, producing in A-ball while catching. The helium was significant. At the end of 2021, Bo Naylor’s prospect stock was in a nosedive as Naylor triple slashed .188/.288/.332. The above-average raw power was not making it into games, and the hit tool was looking like a liability. Still, the assignment was aggressive, and there were some positive indicators. Naylor was running high walk rates, and for a hitter with above average raw power he was both putting the ball in the air and pulling the ball at strong rates.
The concerns? A strikeout rate above 30% and a similarly obscene infield fly ball rate (21%). Both are batting average/on base killers because they are the two highest conversion rates to outs. In 49 plate appearances, we do not have a ton to say about infield fly balls other than that the rate is currently (9%).
With strikeouts a part of it comes from Naylor’s patient approach, and his proclivity for getting in deep counts. Another part was swing and miss. In 2021, Naylor had a SwStr rate of 12.8%, good for 56 of those with more than 200 plate appearances in the Eastern League (Naylor had 356 PA). In 49 PA in 2022, Naylor has a SwStr rate of 6.7% good for third best in system overall and third best in the AA Eastern League among those qualified.
Naylor is still just 22 years old, was pushed to AA 2021 at only 21 after a lost season of development, and plays the most demanding and developmentally difficult position on the diamond. The struggles in 2021, while certainly haunting, are not defining.
If Bo Naylor was to break out offensively, it would include more frequent contact (lower K%/SwStr%), and less bad contact (infield fly balls.) The encouraging news is that is exactly what he is doing right now. For the rest of this year, those are two keys to closely track.
Is Owen Miller different?
Photo courtesy of the Akron Beacon Journal
Prior to a disastrous debut in Cleveland last season, Owen Miller raked at every minor league stop. Miller was not merely successful, but actually downright impressive. Here was his wRC+ in each season over that span:
2018 (A-): 135 wRC+
2018 (A): 145 wRC+
2019 (AA): 121 wRC+
2021 (AAA): 132 wRC+
This means in his worst stop he was 21% above league average offensively. Of course, unlike Naylor, Miller was never young for level so he had to rake to get aggressive assignments.
Miller has just 39 plate appearances, but almost every input looks different than his uninspiring 2021 strife, which resulted in a total of 200 plate appearances. Miller is swinging less, but seeing massive jumps in contact both inside and outside the strike zone. Miller is also pulling the ball more than he has at any other level, and the quality of contact has been far better with exit velocity spikes as well as a material spike in Hard%.
The scouting reports on Miller made his 2021 struggles in Cleveland look like an aberration. From Fangraphs:
“Miller is the latest in a long line of small, physically generic Midwestern college infielders who it turns out can really hit. A minimalistic swing enables him to make high rates of contact, while the strength in Miller’s hands generates doubles power.”
This did not make sense when Miller was running 26% strikeout rates at the big league level, and, truthfully, looking genuinely overmatched for long stretches. In 2022, the contact has been back. Now, one of the reasons players with good contact rates and good bat head control are such interesting development wagers can be summarized by the following formula:
Sound swing choice + Identifying opportunities+ Attack= Power
Two great examples of this are Jose Ramirez and Michael Brantley, who developed increasingly narrow areas where they choose to swing or attack, and are enormously patient, forcing pitchers to throw in their nitro zones. Now Owen Miller is not Jose Ramirez or Michael Brantley, but honing his contact profile and swing choices is important.
First Miller’s 2021 Swing Choices:
Miller’s 2021 swing profile is pretty yucky. Very few swings at pitches that Miller drives with authority, and in general the swing choices suggest that his approach was not a thoughtful one.
Now Miller’s 2022 swing choices:
Right now, Owen Miller with solid contact skills, is narrowing his swing choices to his nitro zone, and the outcome is more hard contact, especially on balls in the air. Miller can do damage to lower outside third strikes, but what was really missing from his 2021 swing choices was attacking the inner two-thirds, especially where the ball is up in the zone.
So what do we know? Well, when it comes to whether Owen Miller is now an above-average big league hitter, we do not know much more than we did on Opening Day. Still, we now see a template for what it would look like if Miller was making a leap and leveraging his skills. Taking his efficient swing and feel for contact, but having more specialized plan of attack. Miller certainly will give back some of these gains as the sample grows, but how he controls the strike zone and swing choices will be a key component to track as the season progresses.
As for what we know about anyone, Miller, Kwan, Naylor, or Richie Palacios, well we know just a tiny bit more. However, the fun of this season will come watching them learn, adjust, and experience counter adjustment. Youth comes with its volatility but learning about these young hitters promises to at the very least make 2022 far more compelling than the Bradley Zimmer, Jerry Sands, Eddie Rosario, and Brad Miller painful experiences of yesteryear. It should be noted that the emotional scars of bearing witness to Ryan Raburn in a Cleveland uniform refuse to fully heal.