Tyler Naquin was pretty good in his rookie year for the Cleveland Indians. Between his mysterious power outburst, making losing Michael Brantley not quite so painful, and the inside-the-park walk-off, few people enjoyed life in 2016 more than Naquin did. But he took us with him, and that was the best. He came out of nowhere too, which was the best part of the surprise. He faded down the stretch, but that likely hasn't tempered expectations of him too much, whether in his own mind, the organization or among fans. But the history of the Indians holds a cautionary tale that should serve to calm the hype that might surround Tyler Naquin, in the form of Super Joe Charboneau.
For those readers who don’t know much about Super Joe, it’s best to let The Curse of Rocky Colavito writer Terry Pluto tell it:
"The first time I saw Joe Charboneau was in the spring of 1980, my first year on the Indians beat for the Plain Dealer. Charboneau was taking batting practice, launching one rocket after another into deep into the gaps in right- and left-center fields. He had a wonderful swing, technically flawless. It was a powerful swing but not the swing of a pure power hitter. Charboneau hit more line drives than deep flies, but those line drives… no other Indian hit the ball as hard as Charboneau in 1980. His line drives made the ball beg for mercy."
Pluto, in his seminal work, goes on to describe Charboneau’s talking about being able to bench 400 pounds, do 200 sit-ups in one go, and generally be some sort of mythical Ultraman, and Pluto coined the name Super Joe. It stuck, for better or worse.
This was a time for the Indians where the fans were desperately seeking a reason to watch. They wanted that next great player, the next Rocky Colavito, and this kid from nowhere suddenly was crowned. He was fun, interesting, a self-described "punk rock" player who even got his own song named after him. He had a stupendous spring but was set to be relegated to Triple-A for seasoning. Through injury and ineffectiveness other players, this out of nowhere name found himself starting in April for the Cleveland Indians.
This sounds like the script Tyler Naquin followed to Cleveland in 2016, for the most part anyway. After a stupendous spring where he hit .397/.444/.759, there were murmurs he’d be an Indian rather than a Clipper come April. Unlike Super Joe, he’s a lefty, but his swing is quick, smooth and tight. Very aesthetically pleasing. But he needed more seasoning. Until Michael Brantley wasn’t healthy, along with Lonnie Chisenhall. He got his first hit on April 6th and just didn’t look back. Just like Charboneau, he became a cult figure in Cleveland, a sudden explosion among established names.
It’s even amazing to look at their stats from their first seasons. Perhaps short of mirror images, but they’re so close it’s uncomfortable.
Keep in mind too, this was in 365 plate appearances, compared to 565 for Charboneau. Naquin's' WAR gets dragged down by defensive numbers, but if you'd given him left field for the whole season like Charboneau got, he might have been at least a little better. Other than that, though, they're so close.
It’s fun to see an amazing breakout player emerge from nowhere. The thing with Joe Charboneau though, he’s also the answer to a trivia question. Who was the first Rookie of the Year winner to end up back in the minors the following season? It’s a depressing question with a sadder answer, and this happened in the absolute nadir of the Indians existence. If the saying "It’s always darkest before the dawn" needed a physical manifestation for the Tribe, it would be Joe Charboneau’s career.
Charboneau's fall could be blamed on many factors, from a swollen head to pitchers figuring him out to not working out enough, right down to drinking too much. He was never a good fielder and needed to work on his hitting craft. Which he didn’t. He was the only real name on a dreadful team, and the press and the fame got together with some level of complacency and helped to chew him up and spit him out. Of all the what-could-have-beens in Indians history, Charboneau looms up there with Colavito, Herb Score and Sam McDowell.
This is what lurks in the shadows for Tyler Naquin. He was a subpar outfielder that made a lot of noise with his bat in 2016, and got figured out. The Indians are still set to contend for a title in 2017, and if Naquin can keep it up they’ll be a real force. He just needs to not be eaten up by professional baseball, and learn how to hit high fastballs. Do everything Charboneau didn't. The good news is, he has things Charboneau never did. For one, he’s not the biggest name on the team, but merely a good story in a season rife with them. He'll be down the list of focuses come Spring Training. The team also has great leadership, from Terry Francona down to the veterans all over the field. He has role models to fashion himself after everywhere he looks in the clubhouse.
There’s a real chance that Naquin was a flash in the pan. He was never meant to be anything like what he showed through the middle of August, but he did it anyway. He was a ball of joy all year. His problems, particularly at the plate, have been identified and exploited, but he could fix them. He’s in a better position than his early 80’s doppelganger. Hopefully all those bad teams and players from the old days still lurk in the back of the minds of all Indians players, showing what entropy and waste can do to a great talent. It’s right to hope for the best for Tyler Naquin, if only to save the lost spirit of Super Joe.