Tyler Naquin Pulled a Bryce Harper

There were a few rookie hitters who ruined it for everyone. Gary Sanchez was completely absurd for a couple of months. Corey Seager immediately performed as one of the best players in baseball. Because of Seager, Trea Turner got overlooked in the National League — out of all the rookies who batted at least 250 times, Turner finished first in wRC+. He had a comfortable 10-point lead.

A couple players in the American League were even more overlooked. Ryon Healy finished fourth in that same group in wRC+. Hardly anyone noticed. And Tyler Naquin finished third, with a wRC+ of 135. Seager came in at 137. Mookie Betts finished at 135. The other Seager finished at 133. Naquin had a breakthrough season, and he was one of the guys who helped push the Indians into the playoffs.

Yet, eyeball the stat line, and you wonder. Naquin struck out three times out of every 10 opportunities. His BABIP was literally north of .400. And he also slugged .514, as a guy who didn’t establish a power-hitting track record in the minors. At 25, Naquin has plenty of time to improve. But in one way, his 2016 looks a lot like Bryce Harper’s 2015.

For reference, this follows along with something I looked at near the beginning of August. The analysis then was pretty simple, and I haven’t tried to make it more complicated. Statcast information was and is pulled from Baseball Savant. For my analysis, I looked at only fly balls, pop-ups, and line drives. So: In 2015, Bryce Harper ranked 52nd in average air-ball exit velocity. Not bad, but not amazing. Similar to Starling Marte and Kris Bryant. Harper ranked third in air-ball slugging percentage (among those tracked by Statcast). His power took off and he performed like one of the very best players in the world. Consensus was that Harper had broken out.

In 2016, Harper ranked 139th in average air-ball exit velocity. He got worse, as we all know. He ranked 96th in air-ball slugging percentage. To put it another way, based just on these variables, 2015 Harper over-performed his “expected” air-ball slugging percentage by 353 points. Yet 2016 Harper over-performed his “expected” air-ball slugging percentage by 52 points. I think we can safely conclude that Harper was playing through some kind of discomfort, and that made him worse. But he might’ve also been due for heavy regression anyway. The Statcast information just didn’t match up with the stat-line information.

That’s all Harper. This is about Naquin! Naquin just ranked 49th in average air-ball exit velocity. That’s a strong ranking, especially for a rookie — it put him around Buster Posey and Matt Carpenter. But Naquin also ranked first, very first, extremely first, in air-ball slugging percentage. We know it’s not all just about average batted-ball speed. There are most certainly other factors. But the average is hugely important, and, compared to what you would’ve expected of Naquin, his air-ball slugging over-achieved by 312 points.

It’s much easier to see graphically. Here are all the players with at least 100 tracked air balls from 2016, and Naquin is highlighted in red.

I didn’t have to pick on Naquin, and you know why? That point right next to him is Ryan Braun. Braun’s air-ball slugging over-achieved by 333 points. Bigger than Naquin’s number! Could’ve been a Braun piece. But Naquin is newer and therefore more interesting, and there’s another Braun piece being written right now for the website, anyway. Be wary of Braun, but also, be wary of Naquin. Something doesn’t feel right.

Obviously, not everyone falls right on the best-fit line. There are discrepancies everywhere, and it leads one to ask, is maintaining a strong positive or negative difference sustainable? The answer is, not really. This is a plot of 2016 differences against 2015 differences. So that’s actual air slugging – expected air slugging, year-to-year, for guys with at least 100 tracked batted balls in each season.

There is a weakly positive relationship, but you have to regress so, so heavily, and this doesn’t even attempt to include park factors. For example, the point second from the right? Carlos Gonzalez, who plays half the time in Coors Field, where ordinary assumptions don’t apply. Harper is the point furthest to the right. The players with the 20 biggest positive differences in 2015 had an average air-ball slugging percentage of 1.054. Their expected average was .853, so their average difference was +201 points. Their same average air-ball slugging percentage for this past season was .902. Their average difference was +25 points. As a group, they regressed almost all the way. And the analysis here is so basic! There’s no accounting for park factors, and there’s no accounting for player speed.

Naquin last year slugged 1.297 on the air balls that Statcast tracked. If you shift him all the way down to the best-fit line, that number drops to .985. To introduce overall season context, that would drop Naquin’s slugging percentage from .514 to .416. You can give him some bonus points if you like for the fact that he runs pretty well. And Progressive Field has indeed become increasingly hitter-friendly. But, one of the strangest things about Naquin’s rookie season was the power output. In the minors, for his career, he’s slugged .417. Statcast offers a compelling explanation. To some extent, it looks like the power was a mirage. Power is in there, maybe more power than Naquin has ever had, but it takes incredible pop to offset a 31% strikeout rate. If Naquin takes a step back in the way that Harper did, he’s not going to look like an everyday player.

Some of this is hasty — we still don’t have that much data, so you don’t want to over-conclude. Naquin might be in some way exceptional, and we wouldn’t be able to identify that yet. It’s not a guarantee his power is going to drop off. Yet, even the simple evidence paints a fairly convincing picture. People got a little too excited about Bryce Harper’s 2015. Tyler Naquin’s 2016 didn’t get close to the same attention, but perhaps that’s for the best. As Naquin’s near future goes, there’s work to be done.

We hoped you liked reading Tyler Naquin Pulled a Bryce Harper by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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dsitar
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dsitar

Really interesting analysis, Jeff.

Can you provide a couple of examples of players who underperformed their air ball slugging compared to their exit velocity in 2016? Seems like a decent way to predict bounce back seasons or breakouts for power hitters.

Aaron Judge's Gavel
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Aaron Judge's Gavel

Check out Tony Blengino’s series of Hitter Contact Quality Reports: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/author/blengino/ He utilizes “granular exit-speed and launch-angle data to measure how position players “should have” performed in comparison to their actual stat lines.” He hasn’t covered outfielders yet but assume those will be posted in the coming weeks after NL 3B and catchers. Reading through Tony’s blurbs on each player will give you a better understanding of each metric he’s using and why each player under/overperformed. Really great stuff.

Some guys that stand out for underperforming what they should have (note this doesn’t include NL 3B, catchers, and outfielders since those haven’t been posted up yet):
Chris Carter: 112 actual wRC+ / 137 expected
Ryan Howard: 83 / 106
Ryan Zimmerman: 67 / 99
DJ LeMahieu: 128 / 142
Joe Panik: 89 / 102
Carlos Correa: 122 / 133
Troy Tulo: 102 / 124
Adeiny Hechavarria: 56 / 89
Josh Donaldson: 155 / 172
Manny Machado: 129 / 140
Nick Castellanos: 119 / 136

Based on Matt Carpenter finishing 3rd in avg exit velocity and running a career low BABIP, I expect him to be one of the notable underperformers as well.

Some of the biggest overperformers:
Anthony Rizzo: 145 actual wRC+ / 133 expected
Derek Dietrich: 117 / 102
John Jaso: 111 / 92
Jose Altuve: 150 / 135
Brian Dozier: 132 / 108
Jason Kipnis: 117 / 104
Dustin Pedroia: 120 / 100
Ian Kinsler: 123 / 95
Devon Travis: 109 / 82
Ryan Schimpf: 129 / 111
Cesar Hernandez: 108 / 96
Scooter Gennett: 91 / 76
Xander Boegaerts: 113 / 99
Elvis Andrus: 112 / 99
Tim Anderson: 95 / 71
Didi Gregorius 98 / 70
Aledmys Diaz: 132 / 119
Jon Villar: 118 / 102
Asdrubal Cabrera: 119 / 92
Zack Cosart: 91 / 78
Luis Valbuena: 123 / 102
Jose Ramirez: 122 / 102
Cheslor Cuthbert: 94 / 74

exxrox
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exxrox

The overperfomers are..almost exclusively middle infielders? Basically every 2B and every SS is on this list. What is going on?

noeckerr
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noeckerr

They run faster than Carter, Howard, Tulo, Donaldson, Zimmerman, etc.

HamelinROY
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HamelinROY

It doesn’t appear he adjusts for player speed (which I’m guessing middle infielders tend to be on the faster end of the spectrum), nor has he covered outfielders.