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Trying to understand Tyler Naquin's power outburst

Tyler Naquin is supposed to be a defense-first fill-in. But instead, he's having a brilliant offensive run in his early career. What's going on?

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Tyler Naquin Experience has been an unexpectedly fun ride for Cleveland Indians fans so far this year. The rookie center fielder is slashing at .325/.371/.554 through his first 35 games as a Tribesman, and even if we all miss Michael Brantley, it’s fun to see this young outfielder take to a role thrust upon him like this.

Especially now that Marlon Byrd is gone. Naquin has done anything but wilted under the pressure . Preseason projections were quite rude to him, ZiPS suggesting a .675 OPS and Steamer a bit more bullish at .707, and even most Indians watchers didn’t expect Naquin to hit how he did at his best in the minors. The .460 BABIP tempers hopes a bit, but hey, that’s the fun of prospects. We don’t know where it’ll go.

What Nobody expected was this sudden outburst of power. Naquin, in his 35 games, has already hit four home runs, each more incredulous than the last. But… how? He’s supposed to be a punch and Judy fill-in barely more than Four-A type, right? Where did this come from? Is it all just pure luck?

First off, probably. As much skill as baseball takes, having Lady Luck on your side helps quite a bit. Really, look at this home run against the Mariners.

He literally ran into that one. That was all accident. He didn't even hit it that hard -- the launch velocity according to StatCast was about 93 mph. Typically, home runs are in the 105 range. Yes, he’s a great hitter, but that’s just absurd. As videos lower in this post show, though, he did club the hell out of a couple of these dingers.

Every pro hitter except Ben Revere could put on a laser show given the chance of course, but it wasn't expected from this player. Perhaps Naquin, being a guy people have no book and batting so low in the order so people sort of forget about him, has been given more chances than most and has taken advantage. Luck is something you make for yourself, after all. Right place, right time sort of thing.

In more real terms, it could be that he’s just a good hitter, pure and simple. He doesn’t seem like the type to have a ton of walks and also hit over .300, a pre- 2016 Joey Votto type. But if he walked a decent amount, say seven or eight percent of at-bats, continues to demonstrate an ability to put the good part of the bat on the ball regularly, he’d resemble a poor man’s Michael Brantley.

Someone once told me, if you want a .300 hitter in the majors, he better hit .300 in the minors. This is obvious, overly simplistic and probably silly -- no less than Brandon Wood beat the hell out of the ball for many years in the minors and is one of the most famous busts in Major League Baseball history. But there’s logic there. Very simply, to be a hitter you must hit, and adding to that, science has shown that over time the human body begins to view hand-held tools, like a bat for instance, as an extension of the body. The more you use it, the more fine actions are possible. It’s one of my theories, along with Grown Man Strength, of how Michael Brantley blossomed. Perhaps Naquin is such a player, that the bat is an outgrowth of him. Not that Naquin makes contact at an elite rate, only 75 percent contact rate in his early career. But he intrigues with this burst and has always had a high BABIP (.389 in Double-A in 2014 and .410 in 2015 before his call-up to Columbus, where it was .323) and batting average in the minors.

Maybe it was just the weather. Wind can be the hitter’s best friend or greatest foe. Checking Weather Underground, in the three-game stretch, Naquin homered against the Royals there was low to moderate humidity and a prevailing wind blowing from the southeast on the fourth at 4 mph and even gustier from the southwest at 14 mph in the fifth.

That one was high, and caught the wind some, but this next one?

That's a missile right there. That'll cut through a hurricane. Progressive Field is oriented so if you stand on home plate and stare at center field you’re looking north. So he could have had a boost from the wind on those two, at least on the first one, to center. On June 3, though, when he hit his first career homer, the wind was blowing in from the northwest, though not as strong, only 3 mph on average. Here’s what that looked like:

What wind there was, that was into it and hit hard. It’s hard to disparage that first home run, maybe the kid just has more power than he’s letting on. Athletes start entering their ascension toward primeness when they’re about 25, Naquin could just be growing up. Maybe this is a real thing, maybe he has real double-digit home run potential. That homer he hit in Seattle was really stupid anyway, just a four iron out there. That gets back to my idea that he just knows how to handle a bat innately. Even by reaching out to spank that one like he did, he found the sweet spot and got it over the fence. You’d think more hitters would be better at that, but apparently hitting major league pitching is hard.

Not for nothing, though it was way back in Class-A, but he had a run where he hit four home runs in less than 40 games in 2013. I’m all ready to dismiss that though, because he hasn’t done this in 40 games, or 34 even, he’s done it in seven games. If Trevor Story can do what he did with the Rockies with his 10 home runs in the month of June, why can’t Naquin do something a bit less for a few games? He’s been timely with some of them, and beat up on the Royals with others. Which could be another part of it. What if he just hates the Royals, and that’s where that outburst came from. For 143 games a year, he’ll be woefully average, then turn into Ted Williams when he sees the Royals. I’m all for it. Baseball is a long game not prone to emotion dominating games, but it could happen for a few games, especially ifhe has a problem with Kansas City.

Is it just so simple to say "he's a hitter, and hitters hit"? Do we all just end up sounding like crusty old scouts stuck in yesteryear if we believe that? He always stacked high averages in the minors even with a low walk rate and more than you'd think amount of strikeouts. But he never hit homers in bunches like this.

So we’ll see. It’s probably a blip. So many of his peripherals scream regression, but who knows. Those grounders and bloops aren't going to keep falling as much. He’s a speedy guy who knows how to handle a bat and hit it where they ain’t, which as hackneyed and dumb as it is, is a good set of attributes to have.

I’m more surprised by his apparent failings defensively. He’s rated negatively in defensive WAR on Fangraphs and Baseball Reference, negatively in UZR and Total Zone Rating, and basically, at least numerically, tells us he’s not a good center fielder. Maybe we always knew this. Maybe it’s too early to tell, and he’s still getting his feet wet with not playing every day and moving from center to right and back. Defense is a long game anyway, and if he keeps hitting like this he'll get more chances. Offensively this could just be the beginning.  MLB 11 The Show called Brantley a "young power hitter’ years before he actually did it. Guess i have to go buy a new video game, get my real scouting report for Naquin.