San Antonio — Since the San Diego Padres acquired Josh Naylor from the Florida Marlins in a 2016 deadline deal, the Canadian-born slugger has been pushed aggressively up the ladder. Despite a .747 OPS for the Marlins’ Low-A affiliate, Naylor, then just a month past his 18th birthday, went directly to Lake Elsinore where he posted a .252/.264/.353 line.
Naylor’s production took a step forward for Lake Elsinore to open 2017, as he added 50 points to his batting average and more than quadrupled his walk rate. But the left-hander, who regularly displayed prodigious power in batting practice, had only a .452 slugging percentage in the offense-happy Cal League.
The organization nonetheless opted to push Naylor aggressively to Double-A in early July. His results again took a hit as the youngest player in the league and he finished his tour of the Texas League at .250/.320/.346. Club decision-makers kept the pedal to the metal by sending Naylor to the Arizona Fall League, where his .494 slugging percentage tied for 12th in the league.
Coming into the year, we had Naylor at #14 overall in our Padres top prospects list, noting that an increased focus on getting his pitch would set him up for success.
As he nears his 21st birthday, Naylor is hitting .335/.414/.515 with nearly as many walks as strikeouts. He is third in the Texas League with nine homers and has more than doubled the isolated power mark he posted for the Missions last year.
“Josh is kind of realizing a little bit more of his power as he’s swinging at better pitches and probably not swinging so hard,” said Padres director of player development Sam Geaney.
While Naylor’s offensive game will need to be his calling card, he is also working regularly in left field in deference to the long-term contract Eric Hosmer signed in the winter.
“I would expect as the season goes along, he’s going to get most of his work in the outfield going forward,” said Geaney ” He has high standards for himself and observing some of the pre-game work, and even how he’s going about it, we have no doubt he’s going to turn himself into a good outfielder.
We caught up with Naylor before a recent game at Wolff Stadium, where he’s been the rare power hitter to outperform his road stats so far this year.
MadFriars: How does it feel to get off to the kind of start you have?
Josh Naylor: Good, I’m just trying to help the team win as much as I can and just keep putting balls in play. Balls are landing, and that’s all you can do. Just trying to hit the ball hard and have a good approach.
After the long year last year that included the AFL, what did you do this winter to prepare for this season?
Josh Naylor: I had two weeks in San Diego. One week in December and one in January. I was working with [big league coach Johnny Washington], Ryley Westman and the trainers there for the most part. Andy Green would sit in and watch and a few of the player development guys would too.
It was incredible. I took advantage of all the opportunities I got. I was thankful for being there and just watching the big-leaguers who were there and the work ethic they had. I tried to leave that place with a different mindset for the season. I worked my hardest when I was there.
What did you take from the drill work in San Diego that you were able to focus on as you went back home and got ready for spring training?
Josh Naylor: It was evident that I had to change stuff. I had a decent year. I was hurt for most of it, but I think I did okay. They wanted to do something with me to help the next season kind of skyrocket. I was all for it and wanted to do whatever they had in mind – try it out and see if it worked. I did what I could and took in everything they taught me and worked on it from when I was in San Diego when I was home when I was in spring training. I tried to do a few other little things to see if those would work, but all-in-all, I feel great. I’m really thankful they took the time to work with me.
It seemed like last year, pitchers were focused on getting in under your hands, but that you’re doing a lot more damage on those so far this year? Was that a specific focus?
Josh Naylor: Last year, I had an injury where I couldn’t feel my right hand for two months and I think that helped the pitchers because I was basically swinging with one hand. I think I did okay – I hit like .250 here, but I didn’t want to be out of the lineup and I wanted to play every day, so I just kind of wore the pain and played to the best of my ability while I could. I ended up getting it fixed up near the end of the season. They’re pitching me the same as they were last year, but I’m able to swing with two hands now, so that helps a little bit.
Was it a nerve issue?
Josh Naylor: I don’t know. I had to get a cortisone shot to get it fixed. It took a little bit to get well. It felt better when I was in the fall league. And then the time after the fall league, getting that time to rest and not swing every day let it get better. Coming into spring training, I felt 100 percent again.
Has it flared up at all on you?
Josh Naylor: No, I feel great.
You’ve always a very aggressive swing, but it seems like you’ve got a little less ‘grip and rip’ in your approach this year?
Josh Naylor: I think it has to do with the work we did in the offseason, just showing me that I don’t have to swing as hard as I can to hit the ball super far. I can take a 75 percent swing and hit it just as far. I mean, if the fence is 340, so you hit it 341 and it’s a home run. You don’t need to hit it 450 feet every time. So it’s just getting a good pitch to hit and having a good approach and being patient is the key. Not just swinging hard at every pitch you think you can hit out. Just being selective – aggressively selective in your own zone.
Does your approach change when you’ve got a lefty up there throwing a bunch of breaking balls?
Josh Naylor: I used to change – like my first minor league season. I didn’t struggle with lefties, but I didn’t have the same confidence I do against righties so I would try to manipulate my swing. Now I’m just carefree. If he throws it by me, he throws it by me. If he throws a good curveball, I tip my cap to him. But I try to hit everything hard and if he beats me with it, he beats me with it; good for him and I’ll get him the next time.
Obviously, your move to the outfield is one of the big storylines for fans watching the Padres system. When did they first bring it up with you and how did they approach it?
Josh Naylor: They talked to me about it a little bit last year. They said they were going to put me in left field to keep my bat in the order and in case anything happens. It’s going awesome. I absolutely love it out there, I’m having a blast. I think it’s sick because I get to prove people wrong who don’t believe in my athletic ability, so I feel awesome out there. I mean, my arm works and it’s kind of useless at first base at times. So if I can be in the outfield and work on that, maybe it can click one day and who knows what can happen.
You had a few rough throwing errors very early in the year, but have reined it in quickly. How have you worked to improve the results in the early going?
Josh Naylor: Playing first base, you can kind of short-arm the baseball and get rid of it as quick as you can. But in the outfield, I’m trying to teach myself to get a little longer and get through the baseball instead of just picking it up and throwing it. I think that’s what got the first few throws airmailed, but I got it out of the way. And I practice every day, just staying at the knees of the cutoff man. It was challenging at first because I tried to throw it as hard as I can, but it’s just an adjustment thing. The next few throws after that I had were really good.
We go through game scenarios, I have live runners sometimes, so I thank my teammates for being able to help me. We’ll have Rod Boykin – who’s a really, really fast runner – run and it’ll help me decide if I’m throwing to second or if I can throw it home that time. It’s a tough process so far, but I’m really enjoying it.
You mentioned people doubting you. Do you feel like you’ve been discounted because of your body, the weight you carry?
Josh Naylor: I guess. I could really care less what people have to say because they’re really irrelevant to me and my life. I just care about my coaches and what my teammates think and my organization. Being able to play left field, I feel like I’ve done pretty good there besides the first two throws. Being able to prove people wrong, I think it’s an awesome experience I’m having right now.
I mean, people doubt everyone. People have something negative to say about everyone, that’s just kind of how life is. But being able to block it out – I don’t care, and being able to not care about it and just live your life free and enjoy the moments you’re in, I think that’s the biggest thing.
You were with strength and conditioning coordinator Drew Heithoff in Lake Elsinore early last year and now he’s with you here in San Antonio. Is there anything in particular that you’ve focused on with him?
Josh Naylor: His program that he runs, it’s a very strict base. He does a good job doing things that will not only benefit us body-wise but flexibility and mobility. We do a lot of stuff to help movement and getting to A to B quicker than you would.
Perhaps a question that Drew wouldn’t approve of: is there such a thing as good poutine in Texas?
Josh Naylor: I’m not a real big fan of poutine, to be honest, so I haven’t really tried any. I know there’s good barbecue in Texas – very good barbecue here.