The Indians Have Another Rookie of the Year Candidate

The Cleveland Indians had a pretty good rookie last year. Francisco Lindor: pretty good! Led all American League rookies in WAR! Didn’t end up winning the award — that went to Carlos Correa — but, boy, did Lindor have a strong case. Cleveland had been anticipating the arrival of Lindor for some time, as he’d long been viewed as the type of prospect that would make an immediate impact. The type of prospect that one might expect to compete for the Rookie of the Year. You don’t see too many prospects burst onto the scene the way Lindor did.

Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier aren’t expected to debut until at least 2017, so no one would have expected another Cleveland player to be competing for the Rookie of the Year in 2016, yet here we are at the All-Star Break, and another Indian sits atop the rookie WAR leaderboard for position players. This time, it’s Tyler Naquin.

It should be noted that Naquin isn’t tops among all AL rookies — include pitchers and Detroit’s Michael Fulmer gets the edge. But Naquin’s already begun building his case. Lower the plate appearance threshold to include Naquin on our leaderboards, and you find his wRC+ between Yoenis Cespedes and Kris Bryant. You find his isolated slugging percentage between Nolan Arenado and Edwin Encarnacion.

Naquin had success upon his debut, but he still appeared overmatched, and was thus optioned to Triple-A in May. He remained in the minors for the better part of a month before being recalled on June 1, and since then, he’s both looked like one of the best rookies in baseball, and a completely changed hitter:

Tyler Naquin’s Adjustments, Pre- and Post-Demotion
Timeframe PA BB% K% GB% Pull% Swing% Zone% ISO wRC+
First stint 65 3.1% 32.3% 58.5% 31.0% 54.8% 51.4% .095 101
Second stint 111 10.8% 27.9% 36.9% 43.3% 47.2% 45.4% .396 187

After acknowledging the admittedly small samples within, let’s briefly move our way across this table to gain a sense of Naquin’s changes. That first column after the plate appearances might be the biggest reason for Naquin being sent down instead of Michael Martinez back on May 18, despite Naquin having a 101 wRC+ at the time. He’d walked just twice in 65 plate appearances with 21 strikeouts, and there isn’t a hitter in baseball who can survive with that sort of profile — especially given the high number of ground balls Naquin was hitting at the time. He wasn’t hitting for any power, and there wasn’t any to be seen in his batted ball profile, nor in his minor league track record.

Let’s shift down to the bottom row, now. The walks have more than tripled. That might be the most encouraging part of Naquin’s emergence, if not for the second-to-last column, that .396 ISO that’s a product of way more balls being put in the air, and way more balls being pulled. Naquin’s become more selective, swinging less, though that could be a product of him seeing far fewer pitches in the zone — perhaps due to the air assault he’s been laying on opposing pitchers.

So, that’s all fascinating. Naquin looked overmatched, and lately he’s looked unbeatable. Like his teammate Lindor from a year prior, Naquin’s displaying power never before seen in the minors. Lindor’s kept his up. Will Naquin be able to do the same? Impossible to say for sure, but when I wrote earlier in the week about the adjustment Jake Lamb made over the offseason to tap into his power, something caught my eye. Lamb and Naquin currently use eerily similar stances and swings:

LambNaquin_July

And not only that, but they appear to have made similar adjustments:

LambNaquinPre

Both Lamb and Naquin once stood taller, with their hands held higher. Both have since crouched, and lowered the hands. Both began going more often to the pull side with authority, enjoying success as elite power hitters over some period of time — Lamb’s admittedly more extended than Naquin’s. Lamb made the adjustment to get his hands closer to the ball, giving him less movement in his swing and the bat more time to spend in the zone. With the hands lower, the swing would be less steep, and he specifically mentioned it affording him more time to stay back on breaking and offspeed pitches kept low.

Say, Naquin’s got nine homers this year. Where were those pitches located, and what pitch types were they?

Tyler Naquin

Seven of the nine came against breaking or offspeed pitches. Zero of the nine came on pitches in the upper-half of the zone. Lamb talked about lowering his hands to better stay back on slow stuff down. Naquin’s done that to a T. Better than anyone, in fact.

Maybe this better illustrates what Naquin’s done:

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 11.07.23 PM

That’s SLG, broken down into zones. You understand what’s going on. For a bit more context, the statistical breakdown of what that heatmap is trying to show:

Best First-Half Low-Ball Hitters
Name SLG
Tyler Naquin .702
David Ortiz .658
Yoenis Cespedes .649
Steve Pearce .627
Anthony Rizzo .610
Edwin Encarnacion .587
Josh Donaldson .585
Jake Lamb .582
Brandon Belt .571
Trevor Story .568
-Minimum 100 pitches seen in lower-half or beyond

Lamb’s presence on that leaderboard is probably worth mentioning, but the bigger picture is that no one hit the low ball like Naquin hit the low ball in the first half. He displayed a clear strength, and he also displayed clear strength. I mean that as in, Naquin’s homers weren’t cheapies. When Naquin’s put the ball in the air, it’s gone an average of 346 feet, which puts him in the top-10 on a leaderboard the runs nearly 300 deep. His fly ball exit velocity ranks in the 87th percentile. Naquin’s not just been getting loft, he’s been getting loft with real authority.

The power can’t be this real — his ISO since the recall has been Bonds-like — but there’s reason to believe it’s at least somewhat real. Moreso than we might’ve expected based on his minor league numbers, at least. 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, and pitchers have already taken notice:

NaquinPitchChange

But Naquin got out ahead of the curve with an adjustment of his own. He talked to our own David Laurila around the time of his demotion back in May about making “minor tweaks,” and after lowering his hands a bit (likely among other tweaks), he’s emerged as a new hitter, with new power, and a more complete offensive profile. Once viewed as a future slap-hitter with a good glove in center, Naquin was one of the first half’s most surprisingly prolific power hitters. Now, he’s helped position the Indians in a pennant race, and put himself in the conversation to take home the hardware his star shortstop missed out on a year prior.

We hoped you liked reading The Indians Have Another Rookie of the Year Candidate by August Fagerstrom!

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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.

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aaronsteindler
Member
aaronsteindler

Thank you for a fantastic article, August.

I’m curious about data regarding what type of pitches he’s driving. I’ve seen him golf a home run off Benoit, as well as golf a triple a week later. It just seems like he can drive pitches even if they’re not strikes, which I’m wondering is indicative of future success.

aaronsteindler
Member
aaronsteindler

Maybe if I just read the article I’d know!