AFL Spotlight: Tyler Naquin
A year in the minor leagues can bring many surprises.
Over the course of a month long spring training in March, a 140-game season, and then postseason commitments to any fall or winter leagues, a player can experience many highs and lows, travel through many cities, and play in several different leagues.
That is kind of the year that outfielder Tyler Naquin has had. He definitely had more highs than lows, but he has endured a long year beginning in Arizona for spring training, starting the season at High-A Carolina, moving up to Double-A Akron the final few weeks of the season, and then finishing things off back where it all started in Arizona by playing in the Arizona Fall League.
“It was a good time, especially when you have a manager like Wally and that staff with Odor and Harry, all the way to the trainers and other players, those guys made it a lot of fun,” Naquin said. “It is always fun when you have a good group of people helping you out and everybody is picking each other up. We started off great and then had a big downfall and then got it back to better. I was fortunate to be able to go up to Double-A the last four or five weeks and they finished up strong.”
This was Naquin’s first full season which was a learning experience for him as he played in a long 140-game season for the first time. On top of that he played in games during spring training and will finish up with about 30 games played in the AFL this offseason. When it is all said and done, he will have played in or been involved in close to 180 games over the course of the past eight months.
Naquin has a motor that doesn’t stop and he plays the game hard every night, but even with that style of play he’s done a great job of adapting to the grind of playing every day.
“It is day by day and that is no joke,” Naquin noted. “You can’t look ahead a day or a pitch ahead. You have to take it for what it is right then and there. You have to keep working hard. Everybody always says this game doesn’t need anybody as the game will still be there. It is up to you to have it.”
Naquin hit .279 with 9 HR, 42 RBI and .769 OPS in 108 games at Carolina before a mid-August promotion to Akron. He struggled in his initial exposure to Double-A as he only hit .225 with 1 HR, 6 RBI and .571 OPS, and overall he did strikeout 134 times on the season. But for the most part, when looking at the year as a whole, it was a successful first full season in pro baseball.
“I started off really well,” Naquin said. “I just made a couple of different adjustments through the mid-part of the season. Everybody is going to have that time during the season where you are going to slide a little bit. It is up to you if you want to call it a slump or not, but I just say you aren’t going where you want to go. You are going to have those moments and you have to handle it day by day. Whenever it clicks for a baseball player he knows it and everybody else knows it, but you don’t really talk about it because you are feeling good.”
Naquin walked just 46 times all season, put up a .334 on-base percentage and stole 15 bases. Those are areas that are not bad, but must improve if he is to be in consideration as a top of the lineup option for the Indians in the near future. He showed some surprising power during the season, but is probably maxed out there. Where he could really make strides is in his plate discipline.
Naquin understands that he has to limit the strikeouts more and put up better at bats as a whole. The sample size may be small, but this is something we are already seeing in the AFL as he is not only hitting .353 in 24 games, but he has a much better walk to strikeout ratio with 10 walks and 12 strikeouts in 102 at bats. That ratio is almost a 1:1 ratio whereas during the season it was close to a 3:1 K/BB ratio. Also, he is striking out only once every 8.5 at bats this fall compared to once every 4.0 at bats during the season.
“I have a bunch of adjustments I need to make, and I created a lot of those strikeouts,” Naquin admitted. “It is about being able to feel comfortable again. They made adjustments with me that they believe are going to help me be a big leaguer, and I am all for that. I have never been a strikeout guy, but if it takes me striking out a 100 times to learn to get better and get up there quicker I will strikeout a 100 times for two more seasons as long as it teaches me different things like how to maybe use the ground better for power, use more of my legs and don’t dive at the baseball. Those strikeouts are going to go way back down just because I will get smarter and see the ball better and all of those different things.”
The ability to hit for average and be a solid top of the lineup hitter are what makes Naquin intriguing with the bat, but his power arm, range and athleticism in the outfield is what makes him equally as exciting in the outfield. This season was the first time he played center field on a full time basis and scouts and personnel inside and outside the Indians organization did nothing but rave on how well he adapted to the position change.
Naquin was a right fielder in college simply based on need, but the Indians scouted him and felt that when they drafted him he could make a smooth transition to center field. So far, that has been the case. He showed no fear coming in or going back on balls, got good jumps, and has one of the strongest arms from an outfielder you will see in the minors.
“In college I played right and shut down the running game as that was my job out there,” Naquin said. “[The Indians] asked if I could play center, and I said I think I play center better than any outfield position I have ever played.”
The secret to Naquin’s success is full concentration on each pitch and then giving his mind a break between pitches.
“I like to focus pitch to pitch as you just get better reads,” Naquin said. “I get a little glance in the stands and look around and when that next pitch is being made I kind of time it with the pitchers foot to be ready for every ball because nothing irks me more than laying out for a ball and not catching it and knowing you could have saved a run or helped the pitcher out. I really try to give myself a break between every pitch for five to ten seconds to be ready for every pitch. That is the difference between really good and flat out being great out there.”
While Naquin made some impressive strides in center field, he is still not a finished product out there and is looking to improve.
“I believe it is all in the jump,” Naquin said. “There are guys who do not run very well at all and don’t have the best arm either, but they are really great outfielders. You have to see the play before it happens. I can’t tell you how many people I have thrown out, be it in college or the pros, that I saw it before it happened. You have to anticipate that the ball is going to hit the gap and you have to wheel around it and throw it to your glove side or what not. Just see it and pretty much assume that it is going to happen.”
Since the day he was drafted Naquin has excited because of how special his arm is in the outfield. Few in pro baseball can match his arm, although Akron teammate Carlos Moncrief may have a lot to say about that. Moncrief is known for challenging teammates to “throw-offs” to determine the best arm, and Naquin knows that friendly competition is coming. He would love a chance to knock off the champ.
“We never really tried it out [in Akron], but Moncrief says he thinks he’s got me,” Naquin laughed. “But he doesn’t (chuckle).”
Whether it is friendly competitions with his teammates, working hard as an outfielder, or developing his plate discipline, Naquin is the quintessential gamer. He works hard and plays hard, and at the same time manages to have fun while doing it. If everything comes together, he has all the intangibles and abilities to be a solid major league player for a long time.
“Honestly, it is just about having fun,” Naquin said. “If you aren’t having fun then something is wrong with you because you are playing baseball for a living. This is just another step on the path to get to the big leagues. I am going to play hard every single day I am in there.”
Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.