Is Tyler Naquin for Real or Smoke and Mirrors?

What is Tyler Naquin? Is he the player who had a breakout rookie campaign in 2016 by slashing .296/.372/.514 in 365 plate appearances? Maybe he’s the player who struggled in the 2016 playoffs and followed it up with a .216/.250/.270 slash line in all of 40 plate appearances in 2017. Is he destined for the quad A level designation or a mainstay in a big league lineup?

Ask most Indians fans and the consensus answer is likely to be something along the lines of the following… “Tyler Naquin is a bum.” “He sucks.” “Naquin is trash.” “Trade him for someone better.”

The resentment is understandable. Naquin’s misplay of a fly ball during game six of the 2016 World Series was one of a handful of moments that turned the tide in the Cubs’ favor. Many point to this error as the moment that changed everything. Because of this, Naquin is fighting an uphill battle to change the narrative surrounding his future with the Indians.

If the early returns of 2018 are any indication, Tyler Naquin is up for the challenge and out to prove his haters wrong.

Tyler Naquin is outperforming expectations.

Naquin has seen action in 29 of the Indians first 36 games of the 2018 season. As of today (May 10th), he has slashed a ridiculous .329/.364/.802 while serving as the primary right fielder in the absence of Lonnie Chisenhall. For what it’s worth, he has been among the most consistent of the Tribe’s regular every day players. And while his counting numbers are lacking, only 2 home runs and 9 RBI, that is not and should not be Naquin’s primary goal. Hitting predominantly in the lower third of the order, his value is in getting on base for the top third of the order and providing run scoring opportunities. In terms of weighted on base average (.347) and weighted runs created plus (115) he is succeeding.

Additionally, Naquin has also shown significant improvement defensively. This is due largely in part to his shift from center field. Serving primarily as a center fielder in 2016, Naquin was abysmal. He was responsible for -17 defensive runs saved. That’s not good. In fact, it’s terrible. However, as a right fielder in 2018 Naquin is already at 5 defensive runs saved. This improvement all comes down to comfort. Naquin was a right fielder coming out of Texas A&M and the shift to center proved both difficult and problematic. And while some might ask, “What’s the big deal? Both positions are just catching fly balls.” they are vastly different. Naquin’s performance helps drive this point home.

But can Tyler Naquin maintain this level of performance?

It’s hard to know for sure. The Indians are only 36 games into the season. With so much of the schedule remaining, it’s hard to make steadfast yes or no assertions with so many future results left to play out. However, there is some readily available data that can help up us understand if it is possible.

First, there is batting average on balls in play. As we have explained numerous time prior, league average on balls in play is typically around .300. So far for Tyler Naquin in 2018, his BAbip is a ridiculous .440. This is not sustainable. Much in the same way it would be impossible for Jason Kipnis to maintain his early April BAbip of .133, Naquin will not be able to maintain a BAbip of .440. The law of averages and bad luck will eventually catch up with him. Balls that are finding holes and dropping in for hits will eventually lead to outs.

One thing that is undoubtedly helping sustain BAbip is type of contact. Per FanGraphs, Naquin is making medium contact 46% of the time and hard contact 44% of the time. This is also supported by Naquin’s team leading exit velocity of 93.3 MPH. While many may scoff at advanced data such as exit velocities and launch angles, the concept is supported by common sense. The harder you hit the ball, the more likely it is to be a hit. This also makes sense when considering other peripheral numbers such as strike out and walk rates and plate discipline have remained largely unchanged for Naquin from both 2016 and 2017.

While that’s all well and good, perhaps the most confounding result for Tyler Naquin in 2018 has been his performance against fastballs. Assuming average performance is 0 wFB, Naquin was a 0.9 and -1.7 in 2016 and 2017 respectively in regards to his performance against fastballs. So far in 2018, Naquin has a wFB of 2.8. This is a fairly substantial turnaround, considering how over-matched Naquin appeared to be against fastballs. Against elite fastballs, he was an automatic out. However, this is not an indication for future success. Given the relatively small sample size and the lack of predictive value for pitch value statistics, this only helps explain his numbers to date.

The driving force behind this change of fortune against fastballs for Tyler Naquin may come down to approach. Given his struggles against fastballs, Naquin had become prone to guessing and starting his swing early to play catch up. The end result was two-fold. First, poor contact. Second, getting out front and looking terrible on breaking balls and change-ups. Both made it appear as if Naquin had no idea what he was doing at the plate. The latter was especially evident during the season opening series in Seattle against Felix Hernandez. In one at bat, Naquin swung wildly at all three pitches, including one that bounced three feet in front of the plate.

What seems to have changed for Naquin, and as recently as his call-up following Lonnie Chisenhall’s injury, is a focus on using the middle of the field. Naquin has gone from 37.8% pull/34.7% center /27.6% oppo for his career to 28.8% pull/42.3% center/28.8% oppo in 2018. Just look at the spray charts below, sample sizes not withstanding.

Source: FanGraphs

Source: FanGraphs

This approach, coupled with increased focus on staying back, seems to have solved the issues presented above. Gone are the weak contact and the embarrassing swings and misses. In their place, we’ve seen the increased hard hit contact and significantly improved performance. By focusing on taking the ball up the middle, Naquin can wait. His timing is improved and as a result he can lay off bad pitches and crush mistakes left hanging in the zone.

Take for instance his three-run home run from Wednesday. After falling behind in the count 1-2, Naquin remained patient, fouling off a would be strike three and taking two other fastballs just on the edges of the strike zones. He was rewarded with a hanging slider down the heart of the plate. He didn’t miss and deposited it into the right field seats.

Tyler Naquin
Tyler Naquin – Fourth inning At bat
Tyler Naquin
Tyler Naquin 3-run Homer Run

This is not the type of result we would have seen previously. Most likely, the count never would have gotten to 3-2. Instead Naquin would have swung wildly and missed or made weak right side contact. However, the type of at bat that did unfold is a real, legitimate sign of growth as a hitter. It’s cause for optimism.

So, that brings us back to the real question. Can Tyler Naquin keep this going? Can he continue to perform in a manner befitting of a former first round pick?

In all honesty, no. To expect any player, let alone Tyler Naquin to continue to put up the types of numbers he has put up over the course of a 162 game season is asking a lot. As outlined above, there is a lot going on here that can be attributed to good luck. The law of averages will eventually catch up to him and his numbers will come back down to Earth. The real question we should be asking ourselves is, what is this normative level of performance? The answer, as boring as it may be, probably lies somewhere in between what we saw from Naquin when he was at his best in 2016 and now again in 2018 and his rock bottom in the latter half of 2016 and 2017.

A lot also probably comes down to comfort. At this current moment, Naquin is of no threat to be sent down. With Chisenhall on the shelf, he is getting a legitimate opportunity to play without fear of losing playing time.

Another key factor, and this was mentioned during a recent broadcast, is his comfort in right field as opposed to center. Naquin understands the position better and has a defensive skill set more attune to right field. While he has some speed, Naquin lacks the range of Bradley Zimmer. In addition, Zimmer’s presence in center hides some of Naquin’s defensive shortcomings, again leading to an added level of comfort. Players who are more comfortable in the field are often times more comfortable at the plate, and vice versa. It should, therefore, come as no surprise to see Naquin gaining confidence and getting more comfortable over time.

Based on the adjustments it seems like he has made in terms of his swing, better timing, and untilization of the middle of the field, Tyler Naquin can remain a serviceable every day player. He was never going to be a power hitter. That was not his profile coming out of college nor was it what made him successful amateur. What made Naquin a valued commodity in the 2012 draft was simply that he was a hitting machine. He led the nation in total hits in 2011 with 104 and followed that up with 92 in 2012. In order to be a successful pro, it should remain the center of his focus moving forward. See ball. Hit ball. Just get on base.

Unfortunately, the time will come when the Indians have to make a decision. As Chisenhall progresses through his rehab and eventually rejoins the team, it will be interesting to see what the Indians do with Tyler Naquin. He may find himself on the short end of the stick. While he has outperformed both Rajai Davis and Bradley Zimmer at the plate, each provides a service (speed/right-handed bat for Davis, speed/defense for Zimmer) that may push Naquin back to Columbus. Regardless, what Tyler Naquin has done so far is commendable and, if nothing else, should hopefully have shut up some of his doubters.