Tyler Naquin rose to fame and fan favoriteness in a flash last year, on the back of incredible offensive performances, one insane walk-off home run and the best boy-ish good looks we've seen in Cleveland since Grady Sizemore. He was a nice surprise to say the least.
Tragedy struck, though, in the form of a hideous late summer and October where it seemed No Naquin was better than Any Naquin At All. he's still on the Opening Day roster, probably starting on Opening Day since the Rangers are sending Yu Darvish to the mound. Naquin probably won't be as good or as bad as he was last year. But somewhere in there is a happy medium.
Projection systems haven't been overly kind to Naquin, though if we’re being honest with ourselves about the expectations of a second year player they don't seem too far off. PECOTA suggests a .266/.336/.428 slash line, Steamer suggests less power with .261/.329/.407, and ZiPS thinks his eye will fail him the most with .254/.320/.406. Which would be bad news. Naquin needs to hit at least a decent bit to be a positive influence, or else unless he is better defensively than he was last season he is going to quickly find himself out of a job. As speedy as he is, he allows too many easily caught balls to become hits.
He also doesn't make enough tough plays, or didn't last year.
Charts courtesy of the wizards at StatCast.
While that might seem like a bit much to ask of a rookie, he's essentially the centerpiece of the defense along with Francisco Lindor. He's supposed to make hard catches. Luckily, if it actually does anything anyway, Grady Sizemore is teaching him the finer points of major league center field play. Having the wise words of an old hand could help his confidence, which is needed when you're the defensive leader of the outfield. I mentioned it last month while writing about him, but hesitancy was his biggest problem. A year of experience should quash that.
But this is about hitting, where we're trying to find that happy medium, I think a good player to look to for some kind of comparison is Stephen Piscotty, He's right-handed, but we'll let that pass us by and simply look at offensive output.
In his rookie campaign, Piscotty was excellent, playing 63 games and logging a .305/.359/.494 (130 OPS+) slash, while walking 20 times against 56 strikeouts. That’s roughly the line Naquin put up in his 116 games — .296/.372/.514 (134 OPS+) with 36 walks and 112 strikeouts. Piscotty did fall of some in his sophomore stint, hitting .273/.343/.457, good for a 112 OPS+. Piscotty also had the problem where, despite being a very good hitter for the St. Louis Cardinals, moribund defense led to him being worth 0.9 WAR. Double that, since players accrue WAR rather than it being a rate stat, and you get right near Naquin's 1.9 WAR.
It's not a direct comparison, but both are young outfielders (Piscotty is actually a year younger) and both had trouble with the high fastball in their rookie year, as evidenced here:
Piscotty did experience a dip in production overall, though he did become a full time player. More importantly, he learned to hit the high fastball, at least a bit:
More so than the defense, this is what Naquin's season will hinge on. About the only problem he'll face is hitting lefties — there are just less of them in the majors. Piscotty was thrown into the fire and had to know how to hit right-handed pitching just to make The Show. If Naquin wants to be full-time and get that Jose Ramirez money he has to show he's more than a platoon player.
Adding to that, Naquin's batting average on balls in play was a simply absurd .411, more than 100 points above league average. While he's always had a higher than normal BABIP due to speed and hitting a lot of grounders, sitting anywhere between .323 and .410 his last two minor league seasons, there's got to be some regression. Right? Like, he isn't some sort of uber-high BABIP god, probably. It’ll just be pretty high.
That's where we find that happy medium. Assuming he maintains a higher-than-normal BABIP, seeing Naquin put up a line similar to Piscotty's 2016 is in the realm of possibility. Plus, despite the bemoaning his bad stretch to end the year, in September he still maintained a strong .402 OBP. He was still taking walks, he just wasn't hitting the ball with the same authority he had been. Here’s his exit velocity when things went poorly in August and September. He could have been injured or just getting pitched tougher. He relies a bit too much on the grounder squirting through the defense than is really wanted, which is one small change I'd like to see. More fly balls. We've seen he has the power, and fly balls create more offense even if they can lead to a lower batting average.
Naquin has always hit, for whatever that means. It gives hope that he'll continue to, at least to a level that helps rather than hurts the team. The defense is another story, but the environment he's in kind of forces growth. All those vets aren't going to let some rookie get a big head. He's shown his most absurd ceiling, which no one can expect. But somewhere in that room is doable.