The Cleveland Indians have been blessed with some extremely talented young players in recent seasons. Last year, 2011 first round pick Francisco Lindor was the runner-up in the Rookie of the Year voting. This past season, it was Tyler Naquin’s turn. The Indians’ first round pick from 2012 was a finalist for the Rookie of the Year as well, finishing in third place when all the votes were tallied.
Naquin shockingly started the 2016 season on the Indians’ 25-man roster as one of their five outfielders to break camp. Normally the Tribe front office is a bit more patient with starting a prospect’s service time clock, but this was a unique situation. Starting outfielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley began the season on the disabled list and Naquin absolutely raked in Spring Training to the tune of a .397/.444/.759 statline over 22 games which basically forced the organization’s hand.
The 25-year old’s rookie campaign began very strangely. Naquin was an all-or-nothing base hitter in his first month, batting .315/.327/.426 over his first 22 games while striking out in 34.5 percent of his at bats and walking in just 1.5 percent of them while carrying an absolutely unsustainable .486 BABIP.
The Indians sent him to the minors for most of May in two separate stints where he worked on his patience at the plate, and he was a new man when he returned to the big league club on June 2nd, he was a new man.
From June 2nd until August 19th, Naquin’s walk rate spiked up 10.7 percent, his hitting stats improved dramatically to .316/.390/.673 despite his BABIP dropping from .486 to .404 and he hit all 14 of his home runs, carrying a ridiculous .357 ISO during that near-three month stretch.
None of those home runs were bigger than on my birthday, August 19th, against the Toronto Blue Jays, a walk-off inside the park home run which became the defining moment of the Cleveland Indians season.
What some fans may forget is the fact that Naquin’s inside the park walk-off was actually his second in as many days, as he’d collected a pinch-hit sacrifice fly walk-off the night before against the Chicago White Sox.
From August 20th onward, Naquin struggled. A likely combination of full season fatigue and pitchers adjusting to him resulted in a major drop off in power as he hit just .241/.359/.276 over his final 32 games despite still holding a .375 BABIP.
All in all, it was a very successful season for the former Texas A&M Aggie. Naquin finished the year batting .296/.372/.514 overall with wRC+ of 135.
So what didn’t go well for Naquin in 2016? First things first, Naquin’s defense was beyond subpar. He was only credited with two errors on the season, but his routes were not efficient, he didn’t have great breaks to the ball and he had significant trouble making catches on balls hit at or near the wall moving backwards. According to Fangraphs, Naquin was the worst defensive center fielder in the American League with an average defensive runs saved of -10 on the season. Unless he can make some serious adjustments, he’ll likely be pushed to a corner outfield position within the next year as top center field prospects Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen move up to the big league club.
On top of the defense, Naquin’s strikeout rate was abysmal. For an extremely talented young player with a smooth swing and quick hands, Naquin surprisingly was best at hitting off speed pitches and pitches low in the zone. As the scouting reports started to roll in, more and more pitchers began throwing him a steady diet of fastballs up in the strike zone and he had a ton of trouble with them, whiffing a career high 30.7 percent of the time. By comparison, Naquin’s highest career strikeout rate before 2016 from any level he played at least 50 games was just 22.5 percent.
Naquin spent much of his 2015 offseason building up his core strength and adding muscle, something he credits towards his power surge this past year. If he can continue developing this offseason, especially really putting time into both dealing with major league fastballs and improving his outfield route-running, he could be a solid cog for many years to come.