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Countdown to Opening Day – 30
Will the second half cool down from Cleveland Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin lead to a pronounced sophomore slump in 2017?
There is little doubt that Naquin was one of the biggest surprises in the Indians’ impressive run to the postseason in 2016, landing a third place finish in the American League Rookie of the Year vote. His walk-off inside-the-park home run in Cleveland against the Toronto Blue Jays is an image few Indians fans will forget. But it was very clear with both the eye test and the statistical results that Naquin had trouble adapting in the second half of last season and on into the playoffs. Pitchers exploited holes in his game, and Naquin struggled in making the adjustments necessary to continue the unexpected first half numbers in the last couple of months of the regular season.
It may be more likely that his numbers regressed back to a spot that should be far more expected of Naquin for the future. As it was, the .300+ batting average that he carried for much of the season easily exceeded the numbers expected from the 24-year-old outfielder in his first taste of Major League action.
With four seasons of minor league experience under his belt, beginning with his professional debut after his selection with the 15th overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Texas A&M University, Naquin owned a .287 average at the minor league level, putting up good doubles numbers. His home run numbers were generally light, making the power display he put on for the Indians all the more unexpected.
During his first four years in the minors, Naquin had hit no more than ten homers in a season (2013 between High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron) and had hit a total of eleven over each of the previous two seasons. With the Tribe, he put up 14 in 116 games and added one more during his 17 games in Triple-A Columbus in the first couple months of the season. Twelve of the homers came in the span of six and a half weeks in the middle of the season, beginning with his first of the year on June 3 and extending to a two-homer game in Kansas City on July 20. That production was followed by just two more the rest of the season.
He ended his debut season with a .296/.372/.514 slash line with 18 doubles, five triples, 14 homers, and 43 RBI in those 116 games.
In addition to wondering how Naquin will adapt in year two with the Indians to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, there is the question of how manager Terry Francona will plan to use his young center fielder the second time around.
Last season, Francona paired Naquin up with veteran right-handed hitting outfielder Rajai Davis, limiting his plate appearances against left-handers. Naquin handled right-handers exceptionally well – he put up a .301/.372/.526 slash over 106 games (325 plate appearances) with 15 doubles, four triples, 14 homers, and 36 RBI. But in his extremely limited sample size against southpaws, he slashed .250/.368/.406 with three doubles, a triple, and seven RBI in 40 plate appearances.
With Davis relocated to the Oakland Athletics outfield, Naquin would have been in prime position to claim the center field spot for his own. But the limited production against left-handers both last season and throughout his minor league career lead to the increased likelihood that he splits his time in center field in a time share with possible center field candidates like switch-hitting Abraham Almonte or free agent addition Austin Jackson. Several other outfielders locked in on the roster (Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer) and other candidates for the club in spring (Yandy Diaz, Bradley Zimmer, Erik Gonzalez, Michael Martinez) have also logged time in center field throughout their professional careers.
While spring ball may not be the best litmus test for how Naquin could perform against lefties with more consistent time against them, Naquin used last spring’s strong start to win himself a spot on the club’s Opening Day roster.
In addition to better numbers during his opportunities against lefties, Naquin could also benefit from hitting better on the road. He made 25 more plate appearances away from Progressive Field than at home, but hit 69 points lighter on the road over the course of the season. He had more triples on the road, which would be expected to a degree as Cleveland’s home field does not play as a triples’ park, but the home run numbers were down on the road. He also struck out 18 more times away from home, which could have been aided by a lack of familiarity with the confines while making his first professional appearances at many of these establishments against pitchers with whom he was unfamiliar.
Naquin will also need to avoid the second half cool down. He played in 58 games in each half of the season, slashing .314/.374/.591 before the break and .278/.370/.438 after. The second half on-base percentage hovered closer to his first half production due to a large number of his walks coming in September/October, as he drew 13 in 25 games then as compared to just eleven total in July and August. He drew walks for the season in 9.86% of his plate appearances, but nearly two-thirds of his walks came in either June or September/October.
Naquin’s strikeout rate can also be a little concerning for a player of his style. He is not a middle of the order, big power bat that is expected (and forgiven) to accumulate higher K totals. While strikeouts have become more of an accepted part of the Major League game, his elevated numbers diminish what he can do on the field. Naquin’s strength would be putting bat to ball as much as possible and letting his speedy legs do the work for him. In 365 plate appearances with the Indians in 2016, he struck out 112 times (30.68% of the time). Strikeouts accounted for more than half of his 221 outs for the season when looking at the end results of his plate appearances (he recorded 95 hits, 36 walks, four hit by pitches, four intentional walks, four total sacrifice hits, and reached on error once).
The strikeout numbers may reflect a lack of in-game adjustment to the opposing starting pitcher. In first at bats against a game’s starter, he struck out 23 times in 92 plate appearances (25%). The second time through, he struck out 32 times in 85 plate appearances (37.65%). In 41 plate appearances a third time in a game against a starter, he struck out 15 more times (36.59%). He struck out in 28.57% of plate appearances against relievers, with just seven of those trips to the box against a relief pitcher for the second time in a game.
He flourished against finesse pitchers (bottom third of their league in strikeouts plus walks), with 26 strikeouts in 138 plate appearances (18.84%) while hitting .368 with a .441 OBP. Power pitchers (those in the top third of their league in strikeouts plus walks) got to him more, striking him out a similar 26 times in 70 trips (37.14%), despite a .281 average and .343 OBP. Pitchers with a more average power/finesse ranking were the most dangerous to him, as they struck him out 60 times in 157 plate appearances (38.22%) and held him to a .243 average and .325 OBP.
Naquin’s aggressiveness at the plate could lead to promising things if he can cut back on the strikeout rate and remain more consistent throughout the season. His second half cool down and struggles with lefties were somewhat expected, but he will need to limit those issues to become a consistent contributor in the Indians outfield. His power production may have exceeded expectations, but it was nearly entirely crammed in a span of a month and a half. Naquin will have pressure in camp from many of the candidates around him who will all be chomping at the bit to cut into his playing time and turn his position into yet another outfield platoon spot for Francona.
Naquin enters the day hitting .417 in spring camp with three singles and two doubles in 12 plate appearances over four games with two runs scored, one RBI, one stolen base, and one strikeout. A continued strong spring, especially in action against left-handers when possible, will help Naquin avoid splitting his time and earn the confidence of his skipper that he can handle the everyday grind in center.
Other notable 30’s in Indians history: Jim Hegan (1941), Gene Bearden (1948-50), Joe Carter (1984-89), Wil Cordero (2001-02), Brian Tallet (2003-05), Andy Marte (2007), Lou Marson (2009-10), Ubaldo Jimenez (2011-13)
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images