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Around the Minors: The Tyler Naquin Edition

(Photo courtesy of Lianna Holub Photography & Design)
This week, I'm going to take a look at one of the Columbus Clippers, Tyler Naquin, that seems to have changed his ceiling since the Indians drafted him with the 15th pick in the 2012 draft. I've never been a fan of his tool-set since the Indians drafted him, and if I'm to be honest, never really thought that he'd be a guy that had anything that could prove me wrong. There have been clear signs over the past year that Naquin had set out to prove all the naysayers wrong, as his numbers have certainly curved upwards. If you were to pin me down in 2012, I'd have told you that he's either a fourth outfielder someday, or a guy that was destined to take the route of Trevor Crowe, by latching onto a not-so-good team with a need for someone that can fill a gap.

Tyler Naquin: CF, Columbus Clippers: 11 Games, 11-for-44, 2 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 6 BB, 11 K

Naquin has always been an interesting study for me. When he was selected, the Tribe took a bit of a knock because he was a "below slot" pick for the #15 spot in the first round. Fans don't want to hear a thing about "saving money" with a first rounder, especially when most had Naquin going a lot further down in the draft. Baseball America did call him "the best pure hitter in the entire 2012 draft," but there was nothing that I saw that particularly stood out.

You know how that works.

Pre-conceived notions of a player often leads to unrealistic expectations. When you take a college player in the first round, you want a guy that can move up quickly, and while there are some tools that Naquin possesses that likely were Major League ready from the start, he was nowhere near a complete player.

The Indians perhaps didn't know what to do with him either. While the club is really good at fostering younger draftees and international free agents, they haven't been good at figuring out what to do with college kids, other than perhaps Jason Kipnis. Of course, Kip may be the case study for the Indians as a second round college pick who blew the doors down and forced their hand at every level. Naquin decidedly didn't do that, but the Tribe still seemed to be following that model.

Kipnis started his career off in Mahoning Valley in the year he was drafted, and so did Naquin. Kipnis bumped right up to High A Kinston in his first full year with the club, and Naquin was bumped up to High A Carolina. Kip blew the doors off the Carolina League, and was in Akron after 54 games. Naquin hit pretty well, but was still moved up after 108 games. Kip then played better in Akron, went to Columbus for the playoffs, started his next year in Columbus, and has been in Cleveland after he was bumped up to the big leagues in late July of his third year with the club.

This is where Naquin hit the road bump. He struggled in his short stint with Akron in his first full year, and it was clear that work had to be done to fix both the mechanics of his swing, as well as his approach at the plate. His combined K% in his first full year was a pathetic 22.9%, while his BB% was an equally pathetic 7.9%. If you have a high K%, you really need to have a high BB% to justify it. That Naquin was bad in both was a major concern for the Tribe going forward.

Back to Akron he would go.

It wasn't all bad in his run with Carolina and Akron. He did showcase more power than they initially thought, and he was above average defensively, combined with a howitzer for an arm. The latter is likely the key reason for his promotion to Akron late in the season, combined with just the opportunity of having a slot open up ahead of him. His offensive tool needed a lot of work.

As an aside, I've seen some really asinine pieces over the years comping Naquin to Grady Sizemore because of the K%. Let's clear the air up here a bit. Sizemore was drafted out of high school, and in his Single A stints, had a pretty elite K% of 14.2%, to go with a BB% of 13.9%. That's right, he walked almost exactly as much as he struck out. Sizemore's OBP that year was a sick .392, and was never under .333 until his 33-game, 2010 season with the big league Indians. Naquin was a mixed bag. His .345 OBP was good in Carolina, but it dropped below .300 in his small sample in Akron. He needed a refresh, and was nothing like Sizemore at the time.

So get that comp out of your head. Grady Sizemore was an elite player until injuries took their toll. But that story is for another day.

In his second stint at Akron, Naquin took off in some categories, while he still struggled in others. He ended up breaking his hand and missing two months of baseball, but up to that point, there were some promising numbers. His K% "dropped" to 20.8%, and his BB% bumped up a bit, to 8.5%. No, these moves weren't substantial, but there was growth over the past year, and he improved month-to-month. You could see the kid was learning. His slash was also interesting: .313/.371/.424, and his wRC+ was up to a more normal 122 (132 in Mahoning, and 115 in Carolina), and his BABIP was .389 (.333 in Mahoning, and .351 in Carolina).

Now, just throwing up minor league wRC+ and BABIP isn't all that credible with a small sample size, but it's coherent to take a look at Naquin's minor league norms, and that there truly was growth in many areas, even though his K% and BB%, which could ultimately be deal breakers, were deplorable.

I also think that certain stats in the minors aren't truly indicative of improvements or lack thereof. While wRC+ and BABIP gives you a nice overall picture of the player in the bigs, I think it can be misleading in the minors, where teams are messing with specifics, and less worried about overall stats. In these instances, it's important to look at game-to-game performances, and those performances are defined by whatever "tool" a player may be working on.

Take my piece on Giovanny Urshela from last week. The Indians had been keying in on his swing over his entire career, which can be a long and arduous process. While there were weeks and months in which struggle was pronounced, if the swing was taking hold, the Indians management was likely happy. In a perfect world, a player just picks things up, and numbers improve in a noticeable fashion, but this isn't always the case.

Everyone isn't Mike Trout.

In the end though, when a youngster is striking out more than 20% of the time, and not walking much, there won't be much use offensively, even though the kid knows how to play defense. This really is where rubber meets the road, especially after he missed much of the season.

The 2015 season is truly a make or break year for the kid. Once again, he was starting the year off in Akron, and if he couldn't "Kipnis" his way to Columbus, especially as a 24-year old, then we could be looking at a "bust." Some may be screeching "too early" at that statement, but I've seen it time-and-time again in the minor leagues. A player hits 25 in Double A, and his only move to Columbus is based on the fact that there's nowhere else to go. If you're a first rounder and can't improve what the club has been asking you to, it's likely the end of the road.

So, what has Naquin done this year?

In a 34-game sample size, Naquin's BABIP is a sick .410, and his wRC+ was an elite level 158. Now, some of that screams "luck," and the small sample size always tempers my expectations, but you can still see the trajectory. His slash-line was .348/.419/.468, and while he only hit one homer, he had 12 doubles and a triple.

Now, I'm sure you noticed that .419 OBP. There's a reason for that. His K% dropped to an above average 15%, and his K% bumped up to an above average 9.4%.

Click.

That's called IQ folks. While you might say the small sample size isn't indicative of overall performance (and I'd agree), you'd also have to say that it's hard to fake a 5% jump. While you would likely see a return closer to the norm, you can equally see that the trajectory for both K% and BB% were getting better regardless.

In Naquin's 11 games in Akron, he's continued to hit the ball well, and while his K% is at 22%, he's struck out five times over the past two games. Remember when I said you had to go game-to-game? Are these last two games a trend back to the norm, has his mechanics slipped a bit, or was he just facing a pitcher or two that gave him fits?

By the way, his current BB% is a more than healthy 12%, which continues to show a hitter that's improving.

One last thing to consider, that always leads me to think that the kid has a high offensive IQ. Naquin loves to push the ball to the opposite field (special thanks to Mike Hattery for pointing this geek-site out to me).

In 2013:


In 2014:


And in 2015:


You can easily see a hitter with opposite field power, and he sprays the ball all over the place. That's a kid that knows how to hit the ball. If you compound that with a better approach, then he gets a bit more interesting as a prospect.

So where do we stand with Naquin moving forward?

Many will say that he's knocking on the Indians doorway, in the same manner that Cody Anderson was before they called him up for his first start in Cleveland.

I don't agree.

My guess here is that the Indians brass is ecstatic about his progress over the past year (and I wonder what he would have done had he been healthy in 2014), but haven't seen enough to feel that he's ready to showcase this at the Big League level, where he would likely not get regular at bats with the ridiculous contract of one Michael Bourn in the way.

Prior to Cody Anderson's 2014 struggles, he had showcased the type of make-up that the Indians front office saw as major league ready. While 2014 was a road bump, he's right back at making his pitches, and right back in the good graces with the club, if he ever left them to begin with.

Naquin has always been penciled in with his progress. His quick bump to Columbus lets me know that some of what they've been working on has been established, but I guarantee you it's not in stone like it was with Anderson. There's also less worry about a pitcher "getting playing time." If Anderson isn't getting starts, they can send him down, get his start, then bring him back up after the ten-day window has passed.

Naquin would just sit.

So don't look for Naquin to get moved up to the big league level unless he can fit into the outfield on a full-time basis. Even then, the Indians have other pieces that could fill that roll who may be more "Major League Ready" right now, even if their ceiling is lower, such as Tyler Holt and James Ramsey.

Regardless, Naquin has reestablished himself as a potential call-up for the Indians in the 2015 season, and while I still don't see him as a #1 draft pick, he's still busy trying to prove all the naysayers wrong.

He just might do it.
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