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‘I’m taking him over anybody in this league’

CLEVELAND — Want to know if the Guardians offense is being productive? Well in a few cases, all you need to do is watch for the helmets.

If Jose Ramirez’s helmet is flying around behind him as he rounds second or third, it probably means something big is happening. For Josh Naylor, it’s the opposite. If his helmet remains glued to his head in the batter’s box, it’s a good indicator that he’s in control.

And almost no hitter in baseball has been in more control than Naylor over the last several weeks.

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Since May 12, a span of 52 games, Naylor is hitting .378 with a .412 on-base percentage, a 1.059 OPS, 12 home runs, 18 doubles and 56 RBIs. In that time Naylor has the second-best wRC+ in baseball with a 186 (with 100 representing league average). The only hitter with a higher wRC+ in that span: Shohei Ohtani, who almost has the 2023 American League MVP vote locked up in July, with a 212.

The other hitters in the top seven since May 12, after Ohtani and Naylor: Corey Seager, Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado and Ronald Acuna Jr.

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Cleveland Guardians’ Josh Naylor hits an RBI single during the first inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals, Saturday, July 8, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett)

“I think confidence is a big thing. He gets in that box right now, and he’s pretty fearless,” manager Terry Francona said of Naylor. “He’s always fearless, but I mean, I think he feels like if he can reach it, he’s going to hit it.”

“And one of the biggest things I’ve seen is he’s made adjustments so often before, if his helmet came off, you’re like, ‘Oh man.’ Now he kind of reels it back in, and that’s just showing the maturity you hope young players [display].”

Francona’s point is that Naylor seems to be at his best when he isn’t swinging out of his shoes. As it has been said this year, he doesn’t need to try to crush everything 450 feet, because he has the strength to do that in a more organic way.

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But staying “in control” also points to Naylor not trying to pull everything 450 feet as well. One key to his breakout over the last several weeks: his batted ball profile. Naylor is hitting the opposite way 27.1% of the time this season, the highest mark of his career. Last year, it was just 20.9%. He’s also been able to stay on the ball against lefties. After opening the season 0-for-17, he’s now hitting .342 against left-handers.

“I mean, some days you feel better than others,” Naylor said a few weeks ago. “The days you don’t feel so good, you maybe try a little bit too hard to get a hit here or there and kind of get a little wild. I just try to prepare myself. We’ll get help constantly from [the team’s hitting coaches] and then the rest of my teammates, I talk to my teammates about hitting.”

Cleveland Guardians Josh Naylor gestures as he runs the bases after hitting a home run during the third inning of a baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, Friday, July 14, 2023. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Cleveland Guardians Josh Naylor gestures as he runs the bases after hitting a home run during the third inning of a baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, Friday, July 14, 2023. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Along the way, Naylor has saved the Guardians’ struggling lineup. Jose Ramirez desperately needed help. Naylor has almost single-handedly provided enough of a lift to at least keep the Guardians hovering around .500, which is enough to stay in contention in the mediocre AL Central.

“I try to do the best I can to kind of give him some help,” Naylor said. “He does so much for this team and for this organization, helps us get so many wins throughout the year. And if I can let him relax a little bit and take a little bit of pressure off of his bat and do things myself, I think it would just make him feel better, put less pressure on him to do everything for us.”

Since May 12, Naylor (2.6) and Ramirez (2.5) are fourth and fifth in fWAR in the American League, respectively, meaning there’s an argument that they’ve been two of the five most valuable players in the AL.

Finally, the Guardians have a dual-threat opportunity in the lineup.

“It’s fun to watch,” David Fry said. “I think he’s probably the most clutch hitter in the league when it’s go-time, when he’s locked in. I’m taking him any over anybody in this league. That’s how good he is and I think it’s must-watch TV when he’s comes up to bat right now.”

Ryan Lewis can be reached at [email protected]. Read more about the Guardians at Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Josh Naylor has rescued the Cleveland Guardians 2023 lineup

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