Tyler Naquin occupies a complex space in the world of expectations. Rare for a player to both have a productive and exciting rookie season but also experience an offseason plagued by legitimate questions about his validity at the MLB level. Naquin was integral in deepening a 2016 lineup which produced the Indians most excited season in almost 20 years, but there are questions about whether he is the best option for the Indians in center field in 2017.
Naquin finished 17th in all of Major League Baseball in wRC+ (minimum 350 plate appearances). While this does not necessarily foreshadow Naquin’s 2017 performance, it is a useful reminder of the exceptional rookie season which Naquin posted. Naquin’s wRC+ of 135 meant he performed at 35 percent better than league average. It is close to elite offensive production. Said production rested on his isolated power of .211 (highest at any professional level for Naquin) and an absurd BABIP of .411.1
The first argument for significant regression in Naquin’s sophomore season is that BABIP of .411, while the league average sits between .290-300. Such a high number is likely unsustainable, but Naquin has demonstrated elite contact quality and similar minor league level BABIP’s. A new formula for xBABIP had Naquin at .355 which is elite and will carry his offensive profile. Naquin should drop off in terms of BABIP in 2017, but the decrease will likely be less substantial than many think due to Naquin making a ton of hard contact to all fields at optimum launch angles.
The second argument for Naquin taking a step back offensively is that the league now has a book on him. The fastball up in the zone is his kryptonite. David Wallace who managed Naquin for significant portions of 2013 through 2015 at two different levels noted that this issue emerged in 2016.
“His struggle with the high fastball was not something that showed in the minor leagues,” said Wallace. “I think the lack of in depth scouting reports and the inability of most pitchers to execute the pitch with high consistency played a role. I know Tyler is aware and working to eliminate that hole in his offensive game.”
In 2016, the high fastball was Naquin’s sole wart offensively, which induced major swing and miss issues.
Naquin was dominated in the upper half of the strike zone, while absolutely destroying pitchers on the bottom half. When pitchers made the adjustments, Naquin was not able to adjust in-season. Once the calendar hit August, Naquin’s production took a nose dive as his .234/.331/.331 slash demonstrates especially given the lack of power (only eight of his 37 extra base hits during this timeframe). The numbers got worse in the postseason when he went 4-for-23 with only two doubles.
Naquin is faced with making an adjustment. Naquin will be faced with options to optimize his approach from adjusting his hands to adjusting his approach early in counts. Statistically, Naquin has shown an ability to improve his K% at every level once he adapts. Similar reduction can be expected, perhaps covering for some of the likely BABIP decline. Wallace articulated Naquin’s ability to adjust “[a]s is the case with some players that are as talented as Tyler, he didn’t really need to make many offensive adjustments throughout his path to the big leagues. But because Tyler has great self-awareness and is highly motivated, he stilled worked and prepared himself as if he hadn’t got a hit in 2 weeks.”
A secondary concern for Naquin- though primary one for many Indians fans- is Tyler Naquin’s ability to defend in center field. Entering 2016, many were confident in his ability to provide average or better defense in center field. The season was a different reality. Naquin struggled with reading the baseball and route running; ultimately appearing pensive. Wallace is confident that 2016 was a mirage. “I feel strongly that we will see a much better defensive Tyler Naquin in 2017. I think this offseason was a great time to reflect and evaluate what went well and what he must improve. I think he was playing tentative at times and not trusting himself and his preparation. I don’t anticipate that being the case this year. I think we will see the fearless, confident, and aggressive player that Tyler proved to be in the minor leagues.”
There has been significant anxiety about Naquin entering the 2017 season, but Naquin is a player coming off an excellent rookie season who has to make a few adjustments. His track record suggests that he can and will make such adjustments. The fun part is watching which ones he makes and seeing if they can continue his offensive assault on the sport’s highest level.
- Batting Average on Balls In Play being a useful indicator of some combination of contact quality and to a lesser extent variance/luck. [↩]