On November 1, 2016, the Cleveland Indians hosted the Chicago Cubs in Game 6 of the World Series. Cleveland led the series 3-2 with a chance to secure the franchise’s first championship in nearly 70 years. In the top of the first inning, Indians starter Josh Tomlin induced a lineout and groundout before surrendering a home run to Kris Bryant. Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist followed with back-to-back singles. While it was early, momentum was already on Chicago’s side and the Indians needed to quickly get out of the frame. Addison Russell lofted a fly ball to right-center field. Center fielder Tyler Naquin thought right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall had it and Lonnie that Naquin had it, so no one had it. The ball bounced merrily onto the ground as two more Cubs scored. The crowd deflated, and the Cubs went on to win the game and, ultimately, the series. It’s not fair to say that if Naquin made that catch then the Indians would have absolutely held the Commissioner’s Trophy that night. I would, however, argue that Russell’s fly ball that November night was the inflection point in Naquin’s career: promise and potential before it; whiffs and what-ifs after.
The Indians drafted Tyler Naquin in the first round of the 2012 Draft. He made his big-league debut in April 2016, breaking camp with the Indians before dipping back to the minors. By June he had established himself as an everyday outfielder, partially necessitated by Michael Brantley’s prolonged injury troubles. In June he slashed .338/.434/.785 with six homers and 15 RBI. In July he hit .348/.416/.681 with another six homers and 15 RBI. In August he singlehandedly defeated the Toronto Blue Jays with a walk-off inside-the-park home run. By September he had cooled off hitting .269/.402/.313 with no dingers, four RBI, and 23 strikeouts in 67 at bats. The playoffs were equally cruel with Naquin recording only four hits (one in the World Series). He struck out five times in seven WS at-bats.
Depth and injuries cause Naquin to appear in only 19 games for the Tribe in 2017 (9 K’s in 37 AB’s, hit .216/.250/.270). In 2018, Naquin played in 61 games for Cleveland hitting .264/.295/.356 with 42 strikeouts in 174 at bats. The 2019 season has opened inauspiciously for Naquin as he has one hit and six strikeouts in ten at-bats. The sample size is admittedly minuscule, but as far as first impressions go, Naquin’s 2019 is less “calling them by the wrong name” and more “sneezing in their face.”
As upsetting as Naquin’s early strikeout trouble is, how it’s going down may be equally concerning. Here’s a quick breakdown of his first seven at-bats (requisite sample size warning):
- Called strike, foul, called strike
- Foul, strike swinging, strike swinging
- Foul, foul, ball, foul, ball, ball, strike swinging
- Called strike, foul, ball, strike swinging
- Strike swinging, ball, foul, strike swinging
- Ball, foul, foul, ball, foul, strike swinging
- Ball, foul out to the catcher
Make no mistake: Naquin is swinging up there. He has seen a full count once all year and has struck out swinging five of the six times. A team may be more patient with a high volume of strikeouts if the chance for a homerun hovers over each at-bat,1 but power has never been a major piece of Naquin’s portfolio. He has speed, but unless the ball is put in play he won’t have a chance to show it off.
Naquin may be hearing footsteps in Columbus as well. Late in spring training, the Indians signed three-time All-Star Carlos Gonzalez to a minor league deal. At this point, it seems likely the Tribe will call him up by the April 20 deadline in his contract. The team also added Cameron Maybin after Opening Day and hotshot prospect Oscar Mercado may demand playing time if he continues his tear in AAA. Are these circumstances causing Naquin to press at the plate? It’s tough to say definitively, but it’s reasonable to think it could be a factor.
To be clear: Tyler Naquin will turn 28 on April 24. He is not the youngest player on the roster, but it’s not impossible for him to straighten himself out at the plate and rediscover his bat. He does, however, only have one option left on his contract. So if the Indians send him down I-71 for some more polishing in Columbus then they can bring him back if he is needed later in the season.2 Question marks fill the outfield, but right now Naquin does not appear to be one of the answers. The presence of better veteran options may box Naquin out of the 25-man roster, and if he is not able to find his bat quickly it may be sooner rather than later.