The American League announced on Wednesday that Cleveland Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin had been selected as the league’s Rookie of the Month for July.
It marked the second time in as many months that Naquin has brought home the monthly trophy for his accomplishments on the field.
Naquin’s strong numbers continued throughout July as he remained a force to be reckoned with for opposing pitchers, who have seemingly failed to avoid the low pitches that he has been slicing and dicing all over the diamond. He hit .348 over the course of the shortened month with 24 hits, 14 runs, five doubles, six homers, and 15 RBI. He joined Nomar Mazara of Texas as a two-time winner of the award this season, after the young slugging Rangers outfielder won the award in both April and May to start the season.
Naquin had two separate five-game hitting streaks, separated by one hitless game, in July. The eleven-game span boosted his already impressive batting average another 26 points.
His 1.1 WAR was the seventh-best mark among ALL American Leaguers for the month, trailing an impressive collection of names, including Mookie Betts (1.6), Josh Donaldson (1.6), Jason Kipnis (1.5), Mike Trout (1.3), Andrelton Simmons (1.3), and Kyle Seager (1.2). His 8.8 offensive runs above average trailed just Betts (11.2), Donaldson (9.9), and Kipnis (9.5) in the entire league.
One of the highlights of his month was his effort on July 20 at Kauffman Stadium against the Royals. He went 3-for-4 on the day with a double, a pair of homers, and six RBI, matching the Indians’ record for RBI by a rookie in a ball game (last done by Turner Ward in 1990). It was also the first time in his career that he has homered multiple times. The ten total bases were a career-high and it was the third time this season that he had three hits in one game.
Naquin’s numbers and results are no surprise to Indians fans who have watched his performance this season. It is his emergence in general that may still be a shock to Cleveland supporters, who have watched the former first round pick (15th overall) of the 2012 draft throw his hat into the center field competition in spring training, only to win the job out of camp, aided by injuries to Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall and the suspension of Abraham Almonte for 80 games.
After roster crunches sent the 25-year-old to the minors on multiple occasions, he may be in Cleveland to stay after putting up a steady display of offensive prowess at the plate, made all the more remarkable when remembering that he is still a rookie and entered the season with just 50 games logged at the Triple-A level, where he had hit .263 with a .353 on-base percentage last season.
Over the course of the last several years, the Indians’ outfield of the future had been established and it was just a matter of when the trio of Brantley, Bradley Zimmer, and Clint Frazier would roam the luscious greens of the Progressive Field outfield together. Naquin, who did not display the speed or the power of his other two prospect mates, had long been thought of as a potential fourth outfielder to that group, despite the Indians using him solely as a center fielder throughout his minor league career.
Instead, Naquin has thrust himself into the picture as a candidate to be a regular contributor to the lineup and his emergence made it easier for the team to part ways with their 2013 first rounder Frazier in order to strengthen the team’s bullpen for the next several seasons by acquiring left-hander Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees before the non-waivers trade deadline earlier this week.
While he may not have guaranteed a spot in the future outfield mix, he is making it more and more difficult to envision the future Indians outfield without him. Brantley is signed through next season, with a team option for the 2018 season. Chisenhall is set to be a free agent following the 2018 season at the age of 30. Almonte is not even arbitration eligible until after next season and is under team control through the 2020 season. Thirty-five-year-old Rajai Davis is a free agent at season’s end.
Zimmer, meanwhile, was the club’s first round pick in 2014 and reached the Triple-A level with Columbus in the final week of July with his now former teammate Frazier. Through nine games, Zimmer is hitting .333 with a .436 OBP. He hit his first Triple-A extra base hit, a solo home run, on Tuesday for the Clippers.
Until this week’s ridiculous offensive display by Minnesota’s Max Kepler, the AL Rookie of the Year Award was thought to be just a three-horse race between Naquin, Detroit starting pitcher Michael Fulmer, and Texas outfielder Mazara, who has cooled off some after a hot start to his season with the Rangers. Naquin still has plenty of time to make his case as he continues to exceed the expectations set forth for him by many who anticipated him hitting for much less power and a lower average at the Major League level.
As it stands now, Naquin is fourth among all American Leaguers with at least ten at bats this season with a .330 batting average over 73 games and 206 at bats. He trails only Boston catcher Sandy Leon (.369 average in 33 games and 103 at bats), Houston second baseman and MVP candidate Jose Altuve (.359 average in 107 games and 421 at bats), and Baltimore outfielder Hyun Soo Kim (.331 average in 53 games and 172 at bats).
Altuve is the qualified leader in the league.
Naquin’s incredible 2016 may have changed the future of the Indians outfield, but he is not yet a finished product. He still has work to do defensively, where he will take some longer or unconventional paths to baseballs, but is able to make up for the bad routes some with his speed.
His ability to hit left-handed pitching is still a question mark, not because he has struggled against them (.261/.370/.478), but because he has had just 29 trips to the box against southpaws. He has grounded out in 13 of those trips and reached base ten times (two singles, three doubles, one triple, four walks). Manager Terry Francona has given him the Chisenhall treatment against lefties, but unlike the Indians’ regular right fielder (.235/.297/.382 in 38 plate appearances in 2016), Naquin has found his way on base a little bit more often.
He is striking out in 29.00% of his trips to the plate, trailing only Mike Napoli’s 31.85% among regulars on the team and Marlon Byrd’s 29.46% before his yearlong suspension.
Despite the high strikeout rate, Naquin has made up for it by walking in 9.50% of his plate appearances, trailing only Carlos Santana’s 13.13% and Napoli’s 10.77% among Indians players with at least 50 plate appearances this season. He is fifth among all AL rookies in his walk rate.
Maybe even more encouraging is that Naquin is using the whole field and has not displayed a pull-happy mindset at the plate. The following spray chart was shared on Twitter prior to Wednesday’s game by Daren Willman (@darenw), MLB.com’s Director of Baseball Research & Development, so it does not account for his fifth inning homer to right.
.@Indians Tyler Naquin has a beautiful base hit spray chart… Now batting .328 with a .394 OBP. pic.twitter.com/5ohxHvPWdp
— Daren Willman (@darenw) August 3, 2016
Among AL rookies for the year, Naquin is first in slugging (.626) and WAR (2.8); second in homers (13), batting average (.330), and on-base percentage (.416); third in runs (37); fourth in RBI (34); and seventh in steals (3). His .437 BABIP is 65 points higher than the next closest rookie. He is one of just four rookies to post a positive offensive runs above average, and his 21.0 is tops in the league and trails only Los Angeles Dodgers star shortstop Corey Seager’s 21.2 for the top mark in the Majors. Seager is the only other rookie with a WAR (4.9) higher than Naquin.
Naquin has exceeded the projections and would be expected to regress some, but he has shown an ability to hit Major League pitching and has displayed growth and development in his offensive game that make him a dangerous threat in the bottom third of the black hole at the bottom of the Cleveland lineup. If he is able to stay ahead of the opposing pitchers, cut back on that strikeout rate some, and continue to show an ability to hit left-handed pitching (when given an opportunity by Francona), he could be an important puzzle piece for the Indians’ future.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images