Variance is the name of the baseball game. In any given year, one might see a former borderline superstar like Jason Kipnis fall off the face of the earth while a fringe prospect goes nuclear. An example of one such fringe prospect going nuclear was the 2016 edition of Tyler Naquin, when he finished 3rd in the rookie of the year race while clubbing 14 homers en route to an 0.886 OPS.
Though his 2016 was propped up by unsustainable luck on balls in play and an uncharacteristic degree of plate discipline, Naquin looked to be an adequate major league option. He spent his 2017 and 2018 seasons getting injured in every which way and doing his best to undo any sense of apparent adequacy. Whatever he did to appease the variance gods in 2016 resulted in an astonishing cycle of inadequacy the following two campaigns.
Tyler Naquin entered the 2019 season in a precarious position: He was given a last stand of sorts to prove his worth at the major league level. The decision to give him an Opening Day roster spot likely delayed the debut of Oscar Mercado, sparking a bit of outrage among the Indians fan base.
Naquin’s 2019 started slow, mired by lack of production and injuries. Mercado started lighting Columbus on fire with his bat and wheels. The situation grew even more murky. Mercado soon poked his way into the big league roster and Naquin missed some time with a dreaded calf strain. He hit the injured list after a game in Oakland on May 10th.
When he hit the disabled list, Naquin’s numbers were bleak. Despite a showy 0.278 batting average, he had managed only a 78 wRC+ through those 96 plate appearances. Essentially, the vast majority of the hits that had registered as part of that batting average were singles and his five percent walk rate was not doing him any favors. Though his average exit velocity in that span — 89.1 miles per hour — was slightly above league average, his strikeouts and lack of walks were enough to dwarf that positive. His production prior to the calf strain was eerily reminiscent of his 2017 and 2018 campaigns.
On June 4th, Naquin returned to action. Since then, he has ventured to the plate 93 times. His batting average is a nearly identical 0.279 in that time, but that tells none of the story. His wRC+ has jumped to 124, or about 24% above league average. His average exit velocity has followed suit, jumping 4.1 miles per hour to 93.2. Though his walks have been limited, he has cut his strikeout rate down by more than seven percentage points.
Variance strikes again. Along with showcasing that batting average is not a very telling stat, the splits prior to and after injury for Naquin demonstrate the variability of players’ skill sets. The same player can bat 100 times and produce at an effective rate of twenty percent below league average only to bat another 100 times and produce at an effective rate of twenty percent above league average. It’s a maddeningly unpredictable game.
Naquin’s post-injury surge has not been assisted by luck, either. His 0.367 expected weighted on base average matches his actual weighted on base average, indicating that the balls he has put in play have mirrored what you would expect from a typical hit at that exit velocity and launch angle. While it is a small sample size, it has provided even less clarity for both those who want to conclude that Naquin is a waste of time and those who wish to conclude that he is the hitter he was in 2016.
The path to success in the second sample size? Location, location, location. The verdict is and has been out that Tyler Naquin likes the ball down in the zone. That has been the book on him since his 2016 breakout. Pitchers should just avoid that completely, right? As goes the old cliche, accomplishing that is apparently easier said than done. Look no further than the concentration of pitches he has seen with respect to area of the zone and then compare it to his slugging sweet spot.
As indicated above, the pitches that Naquin saw prior to his calf injury in May were low-ish and away. Despite being defined mostly as bottom half of the zone, they were not quite low enough to reach the Tyler Naquin wheelhouse.
Ah, but post-calf mishap, the concentration has shifted as though its only desire is to align itself with the aforementioned Tyler Naquin wheelhouse. The pitch percentage has drifted middle and bottom, and the results have been as expected. When comparing that pitch map to his career slugging hot zone, the issue for opposing pitchers becomes clear.
That heat spot is where Naquin generates his slugging. If one were to overlay it onto his pitch percentage during his hot streak, the prime slugging location would likely be entirely inside the area that he has seen the most pitches.
The first inclination is to blame the opposing pitchers. Given the ample amounts of data provided to them and available within the construct of today’s game, it is borderline malpractice to entertain pitching anything from the middle of the zone down to Naquin, let alone the majority of your offerings.
On the other hand, pitching to major league hitters is a nearly impossible task and ventures for command are largely imperfect. No matter their plan of attack, they are bound to miss. Credit should go to Tyler Naquin for capitalizing on the pitches that he loves, and making strides against the breaking ball.
In 2019, Tyler Naquin is a top tenth percentile curveball hitter in terms of slugging percentage with an 0.667 mark. Last season, he slugged just 0.176 against the pitch. This year’s mark is far closer to his 2016 result (0.522). It’s encouraging that he isn’t just capitalizing on fastballs.
After a Tuesday night homer and single, Naquin sits at 107 wRC+. He continues to provide some much needed pop towards the bottom of the Indians lineup. To add fuel to the Naquin fire, he has even been a more than capable right fielder. No matter which handy defensive metric you prefer — defensive runs saved, ultimate zone rating, or outs above average — he is viewed positively.
Whether he can continue to hit effectively is to be determined, but Naquin will continue to be aggressive and prey on pitches in his wheelhouse. Perhaps opposing pitchers will navigate back to finding the holes in his attack, but until that occurs Terry Francona can pencil his name into the lineup card without hesitation.