Tyler Naquin played a significant role in the Indians memorable 2016 season.
His inside-the-park walk-off home run will be replayed for years to come, and his scorching hot June and July helped carry the offense at a time when some others in the lineup were struggling.
But Naquin collapsed down the stretch, culminating in an embarrassing performance in Game 6 of the World Series which resulted in him getting benched for Game 7.
While Naquin became a staple in the Indians lineup this year, his job is not safe (assuming Michael Brantley returns to full health). Here’s a look back at everything that went wrong for Naquin last year and why he isn’t a lock to make the roster out of spring training.
He can’t hit fastballs
It didn’t take long for the scouting report on Naquin to make its way around the league. In fact, the scouting report may have already been well known from his days in the minor leagues.
From April through July, 59.5 percent of the pitches Naquin faced were straight fastballs (two-seam or four-seam). That placed him in the 93rd percentile among the the 346 players who saw at least 500 total pitches in that span.
During that stretch, Naquin hit .335 overall but just .244 against fastballs. And on fastballs up in the zone he displayed complete incompetence, batting just .119 and whiffing on a shocking 44.4 percent of his swings.
So pitchers took the scouting report a step further, throwing him 64.4 percent fastballs from August through the postseason—the second-highest rate in all of baseball.
Of those fastballs Naquin saw in the second half, 63.1 percent were up in the zone, which ranked in the 98th percentile.
And when that worked, pitchers took that a step further too. In September and October, no one saw a higher percentage of fastballs up in the zone than Naquin. It was basically a foolproof plan for getting Naquin out. Just throw fastballs up in the zone and watch him flail away.
And flail away he did.
During the postseason Naquin whiffed on an absolutely unfathomable 65.2 percent of his swings versus fastballs. The league average for 2016 was 16.1 percent. Now stop, pause, and re-read those last two sentences. It’s hard to digest the first time.
To further put that stat into perspective, consider this: during the playoffs, pitchers only whiffed on 33.7 percent of their swings versus fastballs.
In fact, Corey Kluber swung at six fastballs during the World Series and made contact all six times. Corey Kluber took better swings versus fastballs than Naquin. That’s incredible.
He can’t play centerfield
Amazingly, as horribly over-matched as he was at the plate, it was Naquin’s defense that finally landed him a seat on the bench.
Unlike his performance at the plate, there was no disguising Naquin’s defensive struggles. He was a liability from the moment he set foot on the field.
What’s strange about Naquin defense is the fact that he seems to lack so many basic fundamental skills. Throughout the season his desire to play deep was a storyline, and a tactic which got him in trouble consistently. This shouldn’t be a long term concern, however. If past coaches were okay with this strategy, there’s not much the Major League staff could do about it immediately. With more reps, he should become comfortable playing further in.
But then there’s the issue with his bizarre inability to simply track the ball. Naquin gets poor jumps on a regular basis, and takes confusing routes to the the ball—which was on full display in Game 6 of the World Series.
This is especially concerning because he’s been a centerfielder since the Indians drafted him in 2012 (he played right field at Texas A&M). Entering this season he had already played over 300 minor league games in center, and was clearly still lacking some very basic skills.
In Game 6, Lonnie Chisenhall—a outfielder for barely more than a year—was noticeably exasperated by Naquin’s incompetence. This was the biggest red flag of all, and perhaps the final straw that landed Naquin a seat on the bench.
Statistically speaking, we haven’t seen a centerfielder as bad as Naquin in Cleveland in decades.
Since Defensive Runs Saved were first tracked in 2002, Naquin’s -17 is easily the worst number an Indians centerfielder has posted. Michael Brantley’s -13 in 2010 is the only other season to reach double digits.
For years prior to 2002, the best, albeit far more crude, defensive statistic is Total Zone Runs. Naquin posted a -8 TZ this season, the worst by an everyday centerfielder in Cleveland since Joe Carter in 1989. Carter, who was probably better suited to play first base even in his prime, is one of baseball’s all-time worst defensive outfielders. That is certainly not company Naquin wants to keep.
Five years into his career as a centerfielder, it’s hard to imagine what he could possibly do to improve.
Statistics this poor tend to be reserved for the Joe Carters and Gorman Thomases of the world—players with far too little athleticism to be placed in center in the first place. But Naquin clearly is athletic and theoretically should be able to handle the position. But for whatever reason, he just doesn’t read the ball well enough to handle the position.
So what’s next?
When questioned about Naquin during the playoffs, Terry Francona stated that he likes to keep things consistent. He used Naquin as the centerfielder against right-handed pitching during the regular season so he would continue to ride that train during the playoffs.
I actually heard an extensive interview on the Dan Patrick Show with Francona in which he talked about this philosophy at greater length (and not in the context of Naquin). He believes that everyone in the clubhouse is happier when they know their roles and it’s much easier to get players to buy into platoon situations when they know exactly what to expected based on the pitching matchup.
Over the course of a 162 season, this makes a lot of sense. But, when there was no tomorrow, Francona abandoned this strategy and finally admitted that Rajai Davis was simply the better option in center.
In 2017, we start all over again. There are no expectations heading into spring training, so Naquin will have to win that job all over again. And he is probably a long shot to earn a permanent position there.
It’s certainly possible (probably even likely) that his performance against fastballs will improve. He’s still young and there’s always hope that some minor adjustments to his stance could improve his ability to get around on the pitch.
But if he does improve at the plate, where does he play?
The Indians have already discussed a desire to re-sign Davis, and even if he leaves a similar replacement will certainly be found. Even if Naquin returns to the same role, starting him against left-handed pitching is not an option.
The Tribe also has Abraham Almonte returning—a far superior defensive outfielder, who could potentially steal Naquin’s job if he hits in spring training.
And then there’s Bradley Zimmer, one of the top centerfield prospects in all of baseball, who finished the season in Columbus. We’ll see Zimmer in Cleveland at some point in 2017 and when he arrives, that could be it for Naquin.
And I don’t just mean it could be the end of his run in center. I mean, that could be the end. Period. No more Naquin. Because where does he fit?
Ideally, the Tribe will soon be starting Zimmer in center, Michael Brantley in left and Lonnie Chisenhall in right. And that would leave Naquin out in the cold. What do you do with a terrible defensive outfielder, who can’t hit left-handed pitching and struggles against fastballs? If he isn’t forced into a starting role, it’s really tough to see the value in keeping him around.