Naquin Having First Rough Stretch of Rookie Season

Things are not supposed to be easy for rookies in any professional sport. That is especially true in baseball, which can often be very unforgiving to a young player. The stories of players needing a return visit to Triple-A to polish off their games for the big league level are much more prevalent than those involving players who debuted in Major League Baseball and were an instant success.

For much of this season, Cleveland Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin was the young player who arrived in the Majors and took no time adjusting to better pitching, larger crowds, brighter lights, and a grander stage.

Despite the efforts of the Tribe organization to have him spend a little more time in Columbus during the early part of the season, injuries and suspensions to other outfielders on the big league club made it difficult. So, too, did Naquin himself.

From the time Naquin hit the scene at Goodyear, Arizona, for spring training, he did nothing but hit from March through July. He was Cleveland’s most consistent hitter. His bat really heated up in June and July, earning him American League Rookie of the Month honors for both and garnering talk that he could overtake Detroit’s right-handed starter Michael Fulmer for the league’s Rookie of the Year Award.

Naquin seemed slump proof, hitting .397 in spring training. He carried that into the season and was hitting a team-leading .335 on July 31, making the jump from the minors to the Majors with an ease that few individuals before him had managed.

In his first month with Cleveland, he hit .331 in 44 April at bats. He was sent to the minors twice in May, one of the times for the brief return of Cleveland’s superstar left fielder Michael Brantley. Between Brantley’s inability to remain healthy and a suspension to veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd, the Tribe needed its rookie on the big league roster. The rookie showed his team that it needed him to play, enough other bodies or not.

When he came back to Cleveland at the start of June, Naquin continued to hit at a high average. He also began to show power that he had not even exhibited in the minors. Naquin had zero home runs in 63 at bats when he was optioned to Columbus after action on May 17. Since his recall on June 1, he has knocked 13 balls out of the park. He had six homers in both June and July to go with blistering batting averages of .338 and .348 in each month.

For five months, including Cactus League play, Naquin was white hot and seemed like a young guy destined for big things. The Indians’ 2012 first round pick was one of the game’s biggest surprises and a huge reason the Tribe was leading the AL Central Division despite Brantley missing most of the season with a shoulder injury.

Now, though, the month of August is reminding us that there is, indeed, a learning curve to be had for all newcomers to the big leagues. For the first time this year, Naquin is in a slump. As July ended with talks of winning top rookie hardware, August is hitting its halfway point with Naquin approaching a batting average number below .300 for the first time since April 14. That is the day he collected three hits and raised his season average from .250 to .444 in his fifth MLB contest.

After Friday’s 13-3 rout of the Angels, Naquin’s August totals dipped to two hits in 25 at bats, an .080 average. His overall average has dropped from that .338 mark on July 31 to .306. Even after Saturday’s 1-for-3 day, he has just three hits in 28 at bats (.107). This is the first time the Major League stage has looked too big for Cleveland’s impressive rookie.

This is not to say that Naquin does not belong in the Majors or that he was playing way above his abilities for five months. Neither statement is accurate. Naquin spent five months showing he could hit the game’s best pitching at a high level. Five months of sustained success does not usually indicate a fluke. A month or two of success followed by a downward spiral would be more an indication of that. Naquin has exhibited far too much good play to suggest he is not good enough for the Majors.

Where Naquin did not go through the typical rookie pains of struggling to figure things out from the get-go, he may have to now figure out how to push through the end of a long, grueling rookie season.

While the 96 games he has played between Cleveland (79) and Columbus (17) this year are far less than the 126 he played in 2013 between High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron, the stress and grind are far bigger these days. In the minors, there is far less media scrutiny and much smaller spotlight. Naquin, on a daily basis, has dealt with the media wondering if he was as good as he was playing as well as the stress of being a key cog in a pennant race. It is a lot for a 25-year-old first-year player to take in.

As the weather has heated up and the battle with Detroit for division supremacy got hotter, Naquin cooled off. The Tribe’s outfielder and ROY candidate has shown all year that he could overcome obstacles. He dealt with two demotions by simply continuing to hit, making it impossible for Cleveland to hand him a third visit to Columbus.

Now Naquin needs to figure out how to overcome a slump at the Major League level. The best players go through them. What makes them the best is their ability to snap out of them in fairly quick order. After a hit on August 3rd, he went 0-for-16 before a double in Saturday’s win. The next step toward becoming a guy the Indians can count on long-term and a guy who can be an important player to a club that has about a five-year window of World Series aspirations is to learn how to fight through the toughness of a long Major League campaign and overcome his struggles at the big league level.

Until proven wrong, you would think Naquin can get over this and start hitting well again. He has had too much success to think that he is going to be a flash in the pan. Unlike many of his rookie predecessors, he did not have the initial MLB growing pains. Even his teammate, shortstop Francisco Lindor, struggled to start his big league career last season before becoming a ROY runner-up and now arguable the Indians’ best everyday player.

Naquin’s rookie issue will be figuring out how to get through the end of a long season. His success in the next month and a half will go a long way towards him becoming a fixture in Cleveland’s lineup for years to come and could go a long way in helping the Tribe hold off the Tigers for its first division crown in nine years.

Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

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