General, Indians

Tyler Naquin is Almost As Good As Mike Trout At Something

Tyler Naquin is better than Mike Trout at a lot of things. He’s actually better at throwing baseballs far. He’s a better left-handed hitter, presumably, although I doubt it would surprise anyone to learn of Trout’s hypothetical ambidexterity. He’s better at Southern United States accents. He’s better at being a tattoo shop customer. He’s almost certainly a better son to Ken and Roanna Naquin than Mike Trout is. I don’t know Tyler Naquin, but I’m sure he has a bevy of impressive talents.

One thing that Tyler Naquin is definitively worse at than Mike Trout is playing baseball. That shouldn’t surprise anyone; literally every person alive is worse at playing baseball than Mike Trout is. It would be an irresponsible use of my platform to suggest otherwise. If you’re as good at anything, and I mean anything, as Mike Trout is at baseball, it would be fiscally irresponsible for you not to attempt to monetize that skill. Mike Trout is a Baseball God. He’s Zeus, and Tyler Naquin is some lesser river god or something.

In fact, Naquin shouldn’t be a full starter on a team trying to contend for the World Series. He was admittedly valuable during his 2016 campaign, but his performance was inflated by batted ball production that the world hadn’t seen since the days of the .400 hitter—it would be foolish to expect that skill to be repeatable. His glove flashes average occasionally, but a fly ball to Naquin’s region of the outfield often becomes an adventure. At the plate, he has made an adjustment, but not necessarily a positive one. In 2016, he walked in 9.9% of his plate appearances but struck out in over 30% of them. In 2018, he cut his strikeouts down to near the MLB average, but at the cost of walking only one out of every thirty plate appearances. The difference? In both 2016 and 2018, Naquin swung at far too many pitches out of the strike zone, but in 2018, he improved his contact rate by 16%, and those improvements were evenly distributed on pitches in and out of the strike zone. In fact, his 2018 contact rate at pitches out of the zone was particularly above average, ranking in the upper 10th percentile amongst batters with over 150 PAs.

Old school or new, I think we can all agree that making lots of contact on strikes is a positive thing, and swinging at lots of pitches out of the zone is a negative thing. Sure, making contact with bad pitches is better than whiffing at them, but for the most part, the optimal reaction to most balls is not reacting. Indeed, when batters swung at pitches out of the zone in 2018, they recorded a wOBA of just .165, compared to .344 on pitches in the zone.1 This makes sense—pitches out of the zone are more difficult to make contact with: only 62.8% of swings at would-be balls result in any contact, compared to 85.5% on strikes. But, we’ve already established that Naquin is very skilled at making contact with would-be balls, which is half the battle. When the average MLB player put would-be balls in play, his wOBA jumped to .289, much improved from .165, but he’s still better off waiting for a good pitch. Except if he’s Tyler Naquin.

Since 2016, Naquin has recorded a wOBA of .431 when he makes contact with pitches out of the zone, which is second in the MLB amongst players who’ve put at least 100 would-be balls in play over that timespan. I guarantee you’ve heard of the names immediately behind him: Aaron Judge, Justin Upton, Kris Bryant, David Ortiz, Byron Buxton, J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi, and Scooter Gennett round out the top ten. That’s an impressive list, one in which Naquin is an obvious outlier. Moreover, as a regular Indians watcher, I was surprised to see that Tyler Naquin was in such rarified company, given the frequency with which he does this:

If my word and a single GIF isn’t enough, and you desire a more rigorous analysis, feast your eyes on this heatmap of Naquin’s strike zone, which depicts his career whiff percentage by location:

 

The statistic depicted is “whiffs per pitch”, not per swing! For reference, he’s swung at 30 of the pitches up over the middle of the plate, and missed 22 times. He just cannot lay off of those pitches; frankly, it’s surprising he hasn’t seen a greater percentage of high fastballs given his inability to take or make contact with these pitches.

Naturally, if we already know Naquin is extremely productive when putting would-be balls in play, and that he morphs into Bucky McBadbat on high pitches, one can correctly intuit that he must rake against low pitches. One Statcast query later, and it turns out Naquin is not only productive against low pitches: he is, in fact, the second most productive hitter in baseball when he deposits pitches at or below the knee into the field of play. Unfortunately for Naquin, production on low pitches remains on his list of baseball skills that are worse than Mike Trout’s. Since 2016, Trout is the only player who’s been more productive on contact on pitches at or below the bottom edge of the strike zone. Let it be known that this comparison is imperfect: Tyler Naquin has 588 career MLB plate appearances, and Mike Trout has 4,673 of them.

Since 2016, Naquin’s wOBA against pitches at or below the knee is .435, while Trout’s output is even more impressive at .488. For comparison’s sake, here are heatmaps depicting slugging percentage by zone location for Trout and Naquin:

Both Trout and Naquin feast on low pitches, but that’s about where the similarities end. Indeed, Trout punishes pitches all over the zone, no matter the location, whereas Naquin is relatively unproductive on pitches in other locations. It’s not hyperbole to say that every hitter could take a note out of Trout’s book, but that goes double for Naquin. For the sake of completeness, here is the whiffs/pitch heatmap for the Angels’ star centerfielder:

Trout’s one true weakness for the first several years of his career was always the high fastball, but as one of the most disciplined and talented hitters in baseball, he’s figured out how to hit those pitches, too. Mike Trout is an unstoppable force of baseball nature, and no one expects Naquin to be as adaptive as he is. That doesn’t mean Tyler Naquin can’t learn from him though. Here’s a video of Mike Trout explaining to Alex Rodriguez how he learned to hit the high pitch.

Even if he can’t figure out how to adjust his mechanics on high pitches, Naquin simply must learn to stand idly while high fastballs hum past him for balls. Every time he swings through a heater at the letters, it means there will be one fewer opportunity for Tyler Naquin to do this…

…and that’s a darn shame.

  1. wOBA, for the sabermetrically uninclined, is an all-inclusive batting statistic weighted so that it matches up with on-base percentage. Click on this sentence for further reading. []