Cleveland’s Center Field Decision

You never want to overreact too strongly to what happened the night before. You never want to overreact too strongly to what’s happened in a postseason series, or even an entire postseason. A hallmark of a great manager is often knowing when to ride their guys out and when to take action, and players are so much more than one- or seven- or 20-game samples that it’s rare to see enough in such a short time to reasonably warrant a change.

It’s easy to forget that, per plate appearance, Tyler Naquin was actually Cleveland’s best hitter this year. That’s a real thing that happened, and that occurred over 116 games and 365 plate appearances. We know, for a fact, that Naquin possesses the ability to do great things at the plate, because he is literally the same person that just did great things at the plate. Naquin was a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate, even favorite, for much of the year, though it’s easy to forget that now, after a rough postseason was punctuated by an even worse Game Six of the World Series.

For the postseason, Naquin’s hitting .190/.227/.286. He’s struck out in over half his plate appearances, and he’s walked once. Again, that’s a nine-game, 23-plate appearance sample. It’s important to always compare that to the 365-plate appearance, 135 wRC+ sample, for context. That doesn’t change the fact that Naquin, most recently, has struggled. Less recently, but still recently, he’s struggled, too. Over the final two months of the regular season, he ran an 83 wRC+, the power he showed in the first half having almost completely disappeared. He hasn’t hit a home run since his infamous pinch-hit, walkoff, inside-the-park homer against the Blue Jays all the way back on August 19. That’s two-and-a-half months without a dinger, and even that one didn’t leave the yard.

And so after last night, a game in which Naquin struck out in both his plate appearances, including Cleveland’s highest-leverage plate appearance of the game, and perhaps more notably was involved in, and possibly was the culprit of the first-inning fly ball mishap that kept the inning alive for the Cubs and led to two runs, plenty of Cleveland fans have called for Naquin to sit Game Seven in favor of Rajai Davis, despite right-hander Kyle Hendricks being on the mound for the Cubs.

It ought to be understood that this move would be unprecedented for Cleveland. Naquin has started against every right-handed pitcher in the playoffs. He started against every right-handed pitcher in September, and every right-handed pitcher in the second half. The last time Naquin didn’t start against a righty was all the way back on June 30, when the Indians faced Toronto and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey was on the mound. Part of the formula that’s worked for Cleveland all year, that’s gotten them to the World Series, is Tyler Naquin starting in center field against right-handed pitching. Changing that is precisely the type of thing that’s difficult for a manager to do, lest it look like a “panic decision” that’s easy to second-guess if and when it backfires.

The argument is that Rajai Davis could offer more in center field tonight than Tyler Naquin could. Let’s look at that from an offensive standpoint. Against righties this year, Naquin slashed .301/.372/.526 for a .378 wOBA. Davis slashed .258/.312/.396 for a .308 wOBA. Single-season splits are never great, though, and it’s almost always better to use projections. Well, Naquin’s Steamer projection against right-handed pitching spits out a .327 expected wOBA, while Davis’ projected split comes out to a .286 wOBA. There’s a reason why Naquin has started against every righty for more than four months.

The difference, though, is the case that there’s reason to believe Naquin’s full-season numbers, and even projections, are misleading, given some change in approach that better reflects where Naquin’s currently at. And there’s probably some truth to that. When I broke down Naquin’s excellent first half over the All-Star Break, I found that Naquin was the league’s very best low-ball hitter, doing almost the entirety of his damage on breaking pitches and low fastballs. Yet, pitchers continued to give him these pitches. I wrote at the time:

“What comes next is the adjustment from the league. Naquin’s not going to get the low pitch forever, and whether by looking at his SLG heatmap or his contact heatmap, there appears to be an exploitable hole in Naquin’s swing up in the zone…”

Naquin’s first-half fastball rate was 58%, and his second-half fastball rate was 67%. The nine-point increase in fastball rate was the largest such increase among 210 players with at least 150 plate appearances in each half, and the 67% fastball rate overall was the highest any batter saw in the second half. The league has adjusted to Naquin, and he’s been unable to adjust back.

Consider this image, breaking down his pitches seen in the postseason:

naquinfb

The most relevant pieces of information there are the second and fourth images. The second, showing that the barrage of high fastballs has continued. The fourth, showing that he’s whiffed on a remarkable 15 of 23 fastballs at which he’s swung in these playoffs. That’s 65% of his swings. Even during the regular season, he whiffed on just 37% of his fastball swings.

But here’s the thing. It’s not like Davis is tearing the cover off the ball, either. His frightening .294 postseason OPS is considerably worse than Naquin’s, and during the final two months of the season when Naquin had an 83 wRC+, Davis ran a 68 wRC+. As much of a mess at the plate as Naquin’s looked lately, Davis has looked worse.

There’s also the matchup. We’ve established that where Naquin is exploited is the hard, elevated fastball, and we’ve established that the starting pitcher in question is Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks averages less than 90 miles per hour on his fastball, throws it barely half the time, and when he does, located it in the bottom-half of the zone or beyond 64% of the time this year, one of the highest rates in the league. As far as starting pitchers go, there really couldn’t be a better matchup for Naquin.

Of course, this isn’t all about offense. Despite Javier Baez’s postseason struggles, the Cubs likely haven’t seriously considered taking him out of the lineup, due to what he offers them defensively. Naquin graded as one of baseball’s worst defensive center fielders this year, and while he’s likely not that bad — scouts always saw his defense as a plus — he didn’t do himself any favors last night. His routes have been shaky all year, and while he’s certainly not a positive defender in center, neither is Davis, who over the last three years is at -2 DRS in center and -15 DRS in the outfield, overall. Davis is the better defensive option, but it’s not like Cleveland’s missing out on a Gold Glove defender in center.

Davis has an advantage with the legs, too, but when Davis has had such a hard time getting himself on base lately, those legs can actually be more valuable coming off the bench, when Cleveland can guarantee that they wind up on base, as manager Terry Francona insinuated before Game Six.

“Sometimes we want to be able to use his speed so much, and when he’s not swinging the bat, if he’s not starting, at least you can pick a spot where you can put him in for his legs,” Francona said.

The last piece of the equation is the fact that Hendricks hasn’t had a long leash for much of the postseason, and lefties like Jon Lester and Aroldis Chapman are among the most likely candidates to take on a brunt of tonight’s relief workload, meaning even if Naquin starts, he won’t be long for the game anyway.

So, should Cleveland change what they’ve been doing all along? I don’t see a reason to. Inability to adjust to the league’s approach notwithstanding, Naquin is still likely the better offensive matchup against right-handed pitching than Davis, and he’s especially equipped to handle Hendricks, relatively speaking. Let him get an at-bat or two against Hendricks in the early innings while he still has the offensive advantage, and then when Joe Maddon hands the ball over to Lester or Mike Montgomery or Chapman, Davis comes in for the long haul, the way things have been all along. The way that it’s been while Cleveland got themselves to a Game Seven of the World Series. Now is no time to change what’s worked.

We hoped you liked reading Cleveland’s Center Field Decision by August Fagerstrom!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

newest oldest most voted
Daniel King
Member
Member
Daniel King

Francona is usually pretty slow to change guys out because of recent performance, I could see him starting naquin tonight. And like you said, there isn’t a fantastic alternative. I’m gonna miss reading your articles!