Alright, everyone come in close. Cleveland Indians fans only. Look to your left, look to your right, make sure there are no fans or scouts from other teams.
Is it clear? Okay good. We need to talk about Tyler Naquin. Yes, that Tyler Naquin. We all love him, we all have his t-shirt (DON'T WE?), and he has been a lot of fun to watch. But I have some bad news: Teams know how to beat him.
At least, a couple seem to, but no one else has the desire or ability to follow their lead. The lefty rookie, who is scorching his way to a Rookie of the Year nod, is not exactly a complicated hitter in these early parts of his career. Give him anything in the zone, anything even close to the bottom of the zone, and he will kill it. Like most left-handed hitters, he especially prefers balls down and in, where he is almost guaranteed to make solid contact on the ball.
First, a look at who Tyler Naquin really is from our friendly neighborhood heatmaps
Looking at his at-bats from June onwards (when he came back up from the minors a changed hitter), take a look at his batting average per pitch in each slot. Red is obviously good, blue is bad.
Hot diggity! That's pretty good. Look at all sea of red. Throw it down in the zone and our friendly low-ball hitter will kill everything, then as we move up in the chart a little... bit... wait. Enhance.
Mother of God.
Tyler Naquin seems easy to figure out, which is why it's weird that almost no one has
Yeah, like I said in the intro, Tyler Naquin is far from a complicated hitter. Right now, he can hit everything low but anything higher than his waist is almost guaranteed to be a strike or an out. Why haven't teams been exploiting this?
A couple did, in fact. Between August 5 and August 10, against the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees, pitchers began to throw higher against Naquin. A few still found their way into his hot zone, and he was unable to do any damage, going 0-for-14 in the two series.
Max Scherzer, in particular, put on a clinic on how to shut down Naquin. He faced Naquin three times in his only start against him, pounding the strike zone for fastballs in every at-bat. Naquin's first at-bat in the second inning was five-straight four-seam fastballs -- two balls, two swinging strikes out and a foul ball. The ball got away from Scherzer a few times in the fifth inning --resulting in a walk -- but again, he only threw one pitch that was not a fastball to Naquin -- a first-pitch curveball for a ball. Naquin looked even worse in their last at-bat against each other in the game, and again, Scherzer threw nothing but four-seamers and Naquin swung at three of them in the zone, fouled off one, and whiffed on the other two.
"Uh-oh," I thought to myself after watching that game and seeing Naquin's other struggles at the time, "Other teams have him figured out. This could get bad." And then, other teams just... stopped.
Luckily, not everyone is Max Scherzer
Now, I do not expect other pitchers to be able to execute like Max Scherzer, but other teams do not even look like they are trying to do so. The Indians moved on from the two-game Nationals series to face the Los Angeles Angels, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays. In those series, Naquin has not drawn a walk, but he is has a .318 batting average, with seven hits, three doubles, and a home run in 24 plate appearances.
And where are pitchers throwing against him?
Right about where he wants it. The fact that so many of the high pitchers are out of the zone entirely maybe hints that pitchers are trying and missing their spots, but there are still a lot of pitches right where any pitcher should be avoiding throwing to Naquin -- down in the zone.
Naquin's one-dimensional hitting could be a problem down the stretch
Before looking at the heatmaps and seeing where Naquin was being thrown to, I assumed he had already adjusted to the Scherzer method of pitching against him, but it appears no one else is bothering to use it yet. So it's still a bit early to say pitchers have effectively adjusted to Naquin and he has adjusted back, which is kind of a scary idea. If that happens in the final two weeks of September, and into October where Naquin will constantly be facing a team's best starting pitchers, that could mean trouble.
Maybe, if we're lucky, teams will not bother to pitch Naquin effectively up in the zone until next year, and by that time he can work on it over the offseason. In the meantime, as long as he keeps hitting home runs and striking poses we can all safely push this off and enjoy the postseason run.
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All heatmaps and data courtesy of FanGraphs.