Cleveland Indians

Why Tyler Naquin? Examining the Unpopular Decision

Sometimes we must endear ourselves to less than pleasurable circumstances. That conversation near your cubicle with the fellow who just downed two pints of coffee and is a chronic close talker. The awkward minutes at the in-law’s residence when your significant other dozes off. A gas station attendant caught mid-argument with their child’s mother. In all of these situations, we acquiesce by gritting our teeth and identifying the most seamless exit strategy.

This, of course, finds itself a common theme amongst our sports lives. Browns fans endured countless years of utter despair and unintelligent leadership, most recently with Hue Jackson. Cavs fans hopelessly romanticized Dion Waiters’ ceiling as a poor man’s Dwyane Wade. Now, thanks to an organizational initiative to allow him a last stand, Indians’ fans must do so with Tyler Naquin.

The decision to give Naquin a “last stand” of sorts elicited outrage from a fanbase already incensed by team owner Paul Dolan’s unfiltered commentary a few days earlier. Terry Francona did little to pacify things with his stubborn implementation of Naquin into the third spot of the batting order. It’s difficult to argue that the fan outrage is misplaced. While Naquin was a rookie of the year candidate in 2016, his last two years have been a chaotic blend of injuries and poor performance. New blood knocks at the door.

Why not Greg Allen? Why not Oscar Mercado? These are legitimate questions that warrant straightforward answers that will never materialize. Perhaps they are the wrong questions, though. It’s possible that the answer has little to do with those two intriguing prospects and everything to do with Tyler Naquin himself.

To understand the decision, it’s important to be familiar with why Naquin has fallen so far from grace since his stellar 2016 campaign, in which he hit 14 homers, accumulated over two wins above replacement, and posted a stellar 133 wRC+ (approximately 33% more efficient than the average hitter). The blur of success in 2016 was a direct result of opposing pitcher’s unfamiliarity and some incredible fortune on balls put in play. The star began to fizzle towards the end of that year when opponent’s recognized his inability to touch anything up in the zone. This carried over into 2017, when he took a prioritization induced backseat to Bradley Zimmer. He did, however, ship to Columbus and proceed to rip the cover off of the ball against minor league pitching.

2018 would offer a larger window when Lonnie Chisenhall began a love affair with the disabled slash injured list a week into the season. Naquin slotted in and started slow. Just when he was beginning to find a semblance of rhythm at the plate, he was sidelined for over a month by a hamstring injury.

The rudimentary green arrow indicates the date of the hamstring mix-up. By plotting hard contact rate and xwOBA together while notating injury date, it is easy to visualize two things. First, Naquin was steadily finding good contact (red line) — eerily reminiscent of 2016 levels — and his plate efficiency (blue line) was finally catching up. Second, it’s incredibly clear that the injury completely derailed him. His contact quality and plate efficiency tumbled quickly upon his return.

Following that unfortunate sequence, Naquin struggled mightily to find rhythm and ultimately missed the remainder of the campaign with a subsequent injury.

Injuries are not a viable excuse, but in a murky outfield it’s plausible that one could press to return sooner rather than be passed over a second consecutive year. Hypothesizing in this manner is somewhat reckless, but may provide insight as to why Indians leadership is so committed to clearing the runway for Naquin’s Last Stand.

At the crux of the Naquin dilemma remains concern about his ability to adjust. This is especially true in his treatment of pitches that are up in the zone. Even in his enthralling 2016 tear, he lacked the capacity to do anything with pitches in the upper third.

2016

The following two years offered little encouragement in this regard, with the exception of a hint of improvement on pitches up and in.

2018

The problem with this argument is there simply isn’t a large enough data set to offer any insight into whether or not gains have been accomplished. We lack the requisite certainty to conclude that he is utterly hapless.

Combining an incomplete data set with a pair of unfortunately timed injuries muddles the proposition of determining Tyler Naquin’s overall worth moving forward. His 2016 run of effectiveness was a stretch of 365 plate appearances that were mostly interesting and productive. Since then, he has only been allotted 223 plate appearances to redeem himself. To put this figure in perspective, Rajai Davis was permitted to trot to the plate 196 times last year for the Indians.

This is not to say that consternation regarding the decision to give Naquin the temporary keys to right field is wholly unfair. However, it is important to be cognizant that a legitimate argument can be made in the other direction. Facing Jose Berrios was disagreeable to the tune of of three overmatched strikeouts, but the quality of pitching moving forward should lend itself more favorably. Naquin better move fast, though, because Carlos Gonzalez is ramping up and coming for his job sooner rather than later.

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