Tyler Naquin is making muscles

  AP Photo--Ted S. Warren  
Tyler Naquin deserves every bit of distinction that you can muster for his eighth inning, two-run homer that gave the Indians the difference in their 5-3 win over the Seattle Mariners. Naquin, who has bounced from Columbus-to-Cleveland more than Tigger on caffeine, has decided on a new tack for making his North Coast stay a big less brief than in prior weeks: POWER HITTER.

Naquin's home run not only gave the Indians the win, but was his fourth big fly since being called up on June 2, and his fourth in his last seven baseball games (and really, six, since he was an eighth inning defensive replacement in one of those games).

Do I take much stock in the power surge?


Am I happy for it?


Right now, the Indians are trying to piece-meal and overlap an outfield that was already being held together by duct tape, chewing gum and aluminum foil before we knew that Michael Brantley was going to be out for any significant time this year. They need everything they can get from this rag-tag outfield core, even if it's hyperbole.

And make no mistake about it, Naquin hitting four homers in a week, and even talking about his power are hyperbole, even if it happened, live and in living color.

Just look at the home run power numbers over the length of his college and pro career:
  • In three years at Texas A&M, while Naquin produced at a high clip offensively, he only hit seven homers total. That's right, three years, seven homers. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out he wasn't projected to hit for power.

  • He's hit double figure home runs once in his pro career, hitting ten in 126 games in 2013 in both Caroliina and Akron. I was able to see a few of those homers that year, as I was stationed in Raleigh watching every game, and while hitting nine Carolina League home runs is pretty good, it's not some sorta indicator of future power.

  • In 2014, Naquin only hit four homers in an injury-plagued Double A season. He played in just over half of Akron's baseball games, so for you mathematicians out there, you can figure out that four isn't going to turn into 24 in 50 or so games.

  • Last year, Naquin again missed a big chunk of the season in Double A Akron and Triple A Columbus, and did manage to hit seven homers, but six came in the band box known as Huntington Park.
What I've just done is put a bunch of sentences to this simple fact: Tyler Naquin is a power enigma this year. Who am I kidding. His whole career is the picture perfect definition of enigma.

He was a first rounder, picked 15th overall by the Indians in 2012, but was labeled as a reach for a multitude of reasons, including his lack of power.

He had a howitzer for an arm, but was never really anything more than an average outfielder, according to the real scouts in the system that observed him over the years in college, and in the pros.

He has always been able to hit the baseball, but has struggled as a professional making contact. It has improved over his career, but his K% is at a whopping 32%, and his walk rate is sitting at 6%. While that's certainly a small sample size, it's also absolutely abysmal. When you toss in a .460 BABIP (yeah....460), you realize that he's likely paid off some sort of voodoo king, or is just riding the home run wave, so to speak. I'll get to that in a bit.

For the most part, Naquin's been known as "that guy that was drafted first, but sandwiched in between Francisco Lindor (drafted first in 2011) and Clint Frazier (drafted first in 2013)." He also happens to be four years older than Lindor, and five years older than Frazier, adding another odd layer onto all of this.

So where is this power coming from? Well, let's take a look at last night's homer for some clues, shall we?

Ummmm, did he actually hit that ball almost off the ground, and with his left hand coming off the bat, and with absolutely no drive whatsover?

Yep, and his back foot was coming off the ground too.

Awesome, but it doesn't really tell us anything, does it. Clearly, Naquin got good wood on the ball, and used Benoit's velocity to hit a home run just over the wall in right field.

But I'm not being fair to Naquin in the least. There has been some interesting developments to note regarding Naquin and his power supply heading into this year. During his hot spring training, Naquin blasted four homers, and while that's not necessarily a great indicator into this week's streak, what led him to that power may just be that very thing.

According to the Indians' beat writer for the Plain Dealer, Paul Hoynes, Naquin worked his ass off this offseason. Naquin noted that he and Cody Anderson roomed together and worked out together, and were doing everything they could do to make the club:
"I was here from December 1 through the 20th, and from January 1 through February 5. I cut down my body fat and gained some muscle. I just wanted to be in good-enough shape to play center field every day. That was my goal."
So it's clear that he added some muscle mass, but the knock on him, power-wise, has always been more about swing plane than muscle. While his bat speed really is freakish if you pay attention, he has absolutely no loft to his swing whatsoever. The irony there is that Benoit's low pitch forced the issue for the gap-powered, line-drive hitting Naquin. What's interesting though, is that his line-drive swing, with added muscle, has turned into something fairly interesting, regarding power.

Seriously, put it all together. You take a kid that has great bat speed, then combine it with good gap power already, solid pitch recognition, and improving contact, and what do you get? When you combine it with pitchers that don't have a book on him yet, you get mistakes that turn into home runs.

While last night's blast against Seattle just made it over the wall in right-center, he's launched some bombs since the start of spring training. In a game against Kansas City on March 23, Naquin hit two blasts almost to straight-away center. Here's the second of that particular spring training game, and watch closely to where it lands...if you can find it.

If you didn't watch that whole clip, Naquin nearly hit that out of the stadium. What's even more beautiful is the swing itself. There was no wasted movement, and complete balance as he turned through the ball. While there's a slight uptick in the plane, you can see that there's really not a "home run loop." He's simply taking his normal swing, and hitting the ball where it's at. He launches it, simply because he made amazing contact, with great bat speed.

It's a great swing, and with all the tools I've already mentioned, you'd think that contact wouldn't really be an issue.

Here's a home run he hit two days later, against Arizona.

Honestly, you could almost overlay that swing with the one from Kansas City two days prior. It was the same exact swing. Now sure, you can fault the pitchers in both cases for serving a fat fastball to Naquin in both cases, but go back and watch his home run off of Benoit. He's just taking the pitches where he finds him, and utilizing the tools that he has.

In other words, this isn't a guy trying to hit home runs to make the ball club. He's just using his old skill set, with his newfound strength....right?

Here's Naquin's second home run of the regular season, also against Kansas City.

Look familiar?

Now there are a couple of differences to note here. On this particular swing, Naquin was a bit ahead of the ball with his hips, almost like a golfer that really got through his swing well. Then his exceptional bat speed did the rest.

Ian Kennedy clearly gets the ball up on a mistake that should have been down and away, but Naquin took it pretty deep, again to right center, and again, without too much effort.

There are clearly slight differences in all four of the swings above, but that's what happens with any swing. The point? Naquin is likely generating his power for a few different reasons:
  1. Pitchers don't know him that well, and therefore don't respect him enough to do their homework. He's snacking on gopher pitches, with the exception of Benoit's golf shot.

  2. He's added bulk, which has clearly given him more power.

  3. His bat speed continues to improve, and was good before.

  4. He's making better-and-better contact.

  5. He's HR streaky. He hit his four spring jacks in a week's time, and has matched with his four June home runs. Wouldn't it be nice if he were a warm weather power hitter?

  6. Oh, and what about the BABIP? .460? 30+ K% and sub 6 BB%? Should I even talk about his absolutely absurd ISO of .229 and his 152 wRC+ Put all that together, and what do you get? Yeah...Jobu's at work my friends. Jobu is clearly at work. We know it's a small sample size, with the BABIP regressing, but so should the K% and BB% improve as well. Boy, it's a hard sell trying to figure out where he'll be at the end of this, but there are certainly some fun skills to ponder.
In the end, Naquin is a microcosm of what great teams and amazing managers do. They are able to work the percentages really, really well, while equally reading the waves of players that are hot, and minimizes the players that are not. Joe Maddon, to me, is the best at this right now. He's certainly a guy that understand the metrics of the game, but he equally moves players around based on that. I'd throw Theo Epstein in that category as well. And Tito? He's won two World Series with two sorta different rosters. Not saying he's the best at it, but he's done it...twice.

Now the Indians aren't the Red Sox, and clearly, payroll make things a lot more simple, but perhaps what we're seeing over the past three seasons is a manager learning how to work a team under the confines of a restrictive payroll. Maybe Naquin is a case in point. There's no way this is a real thing, right?

So what do we get out of Naquin long-term? Is he a future power hitter? Probably not. But what we clearly have is a still-developing hitter with a whole lotta baseball smarts. He can make pitchers pay for mistakes, which he'll likely see a lot of hitting at the bottom of the order.

Do I think he's another Brantley in the making? I think defensively, they are comparable, and Naquin clearly has the better arm. Honestly, I think Brantley may actually be the better defensive player, which lets you know what I've always thought of Naquin in the field.

If Brantley ever shifts to DH or 1B, I would honestly love to see Naquin in left field at some point, which ideally, would slightly improve his defense. I don't see the hitter that Brantley is...really ever...although I do think we're seeing a power uptick, with the potential for better contact.

So if his ceiling is as a poor man's Brantley, I think everyone on the planet can live with that if he's a regular. In the end, that's really the question. Can Naquin, once his numbers stabilize, still be a regular in the outfield?

In this outfield, you bet your ass he can.

Long term though, is Naquin the type of player that can find a regular role in the outfield, perhaps along with Frazier and Zimmer?  Honestly, if that happens, I'll be skipping down the street like there's an ice cream truck giving away free soft serve.

Until then, let's hope his absolutely ridiculous numbers continue for awhile longer, so we can bask in the power hitter extraordinaire, Tyler Naquin.

Did I seriously just say that?

Today's List:

  1. Will Benson, OF, Cleveland Indians--he's the first round selection of the Tribe on Day 1 of the draft. Jordan Bastian gives you everything you need to know about him, and make sure you follow Jeff Ellis on Twitter, he knows his stuff. Let me just say this: Benson is a long way away, but he seems to have a great head on his shoulders, and as a Duke commit, is clearly smart. As Bastian noted:

  2. Josh Tomlin, SP, Cleveland Indians--Tomlin went 6 1/3 last night, giving up two dingers, and nine hits, but again, not really making any major mistakes. In this rotation of QB's drafted #1, Tomlin feels a lot like the guy that ends up winning a whole lot of games because he doesn't throw any interceptions when it counts. If he's our #5 starter all year long, doing exactly that, hole cow is this team going to win baseball games.

  3. Jose Ramirez, 3B, Cleveland Indians--I've loved this guy since the second I saw him in Lake County. Why? Because nobody knew who in land's hell he was in 2011 and 2012. He ends up skipping Carolina, getting bumped up to the big league clubbed, and harangued by the general public who don't pay attention. Now everyone loves him. There should be a law. Oh, why's he on this list? Because he'll be here until the List says otherwise.

  4. Catchers--If Roberto Perez wasn't out until July or August, I'd honestly be pushing for a Yan Gomes trade. I can live with Chris Gimenez as the back-up, Perez as the starter, and whatever haul a Gomes package gets the Indians. Now, I love Gomes and back, but like Salazar, Roberto Perez is a guy that I've followed forever. I can't wait until he returns.

  5. Gordie Howe, RIP--Apparently, this is the year all of the heroes die. Howe is arguably one of the four greatest players of all time, and when you're dubbed "Mr. Hockey," you know you are a pretty good at what you do. Gretzky, Orr, Howe and probably Lemieux. With Muhammad Ali passing last week, you have to wonder how long it's going to be until this conversation comes around to Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Jim Brown.
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