After consecutive walkoffs, including an inside-the-park home run that cemented his name in Indians lore, Tyler Naquin has reached the status of mythological creature.
It’s understandable why fans love him. We’re naturally drawn to underdogs and since Naquin isn’t even supposed to be here yet (if Michael Brantley were healthy in April he probably would have started the year in Columbus) he certainly qualifies.
We’re also naturally draw to rookies. Partially because it’s just fun to have a new face to root for but also because there are hopes of what could be coming next. The rookie year is supposed to be a glimpse into the future—which, if this is the case for Naquin, will be a ridiculous good future.
Unfortunately, red hot rookie years often lead to sophomore slumps and sometimes to career “slumps” due to unsustainable rookie results.
I believe this is partially why fans love to hate Carlos Santana. He posted a career-high .401 OBP after being called up in 2010. Then in 2011, his first full season, he hit 27 home runs—another career high (until this year, assuming he stays healthy).
But since Santana was hyped up as the next big bat in the heart of the lineup, 27 home runs at age 25 was supposed to turn into 35 or 40 home runs by the time he hit his prime.
And this is exactly why I want to caution you about buying into the Naquin hype. Almost nothing Naquin has done this season is repeatable.
And I don’t just mean he’s going to slow down as pitchers figure him out. I mean he couldn’t reproduce these numbers again if he harnessed the powers of the Monstars from Space Jam and sucked all the power out of Barry Bonds.
There are a lot of stats to demonstrate this, but to keep things simple, let’s just focus on Naquin’s pleasantly surprising power numbers.
His 14 home runs certainly don’t reek of steroids or anything like that. At first glance they’re just a nice surprise from a productive rookie. But the problem is, Naquin shouldn’t be producing these home runs given the rate at which he hits fly balls.
Jim Thome, for example, hit a ton of home runs partially because he was so strong but also because he had a fly ball swing. Remember all those towering fly balls he’d launch to centerfield that hung up seemingly forever only to fall 20 feet short of the fence?
For his career, Thome had a .69 ground ball to fly ball ratio. Naquin, however, has a nearly even split at .93 ground balls to fly balls (not to mention considerably less raw strength than Thome in his prime). So we should expect a lower home run rate overall as well as a lower home run rate on fly balls.
Naquin’s AB/HR rate is higher than Thome’s career rate, but actually a little lower compared to Thome at the same age. Naquin is hitting a home run once ever 16.7 at-bats this season. For comparison, in 1995, Thome hit one once every 18.1 at-bats.
The reason for Naquin’s increased home run has to do with the rate at which his fly balls are leaving the yard.
An incredible 26.8 percent of Naquin’s fly balls have resulted in home runs this season, easily the best rate on the team. This type of advanced stat didn’t exist in Thome’s prime so it’s difficult to compare, but it’s easy to establish the unsustainability of Naquin’s rate in other ways.
Over the past five seasons, only two players have turned a higher percentage of fly balls into home runs over the course of a full year: Chris Davis and Giancarlo Stanton—not exactly names you would associated with Naquin.
Part of the reason for Naquin’s incredible luck seems to be that good old Jacobs Field magic. An absolutely insane 37.5 percent of Naquin’s fly balls at The Jake have been home runs. The five-year average for all hitters in Cleveland: 9.8 percent.
So why are we talking about this? Shouldn’t we just enjoy Naquin’s magic while it lasts?
Well, yes. And that’s why I think it’s important to acknowledge the details behind his success.
Naquin isn’t going to produce at this rate ever again. Hopefully he’ll develop in other areas and find ways to remain productive, but he’s on a historic tear right now that just isn’t possible to duplicate.
So we should appreciate what Naquin is doing but also to remember not to hold his current success against him in the future when he inevitably crashes back down to earth. Don’t expect his 14 home runs to turn into 30, or even 20. Just enjoy what he’s producing now and be prepared to find other ways to enjoy his success in the future.