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Not Quite a Prospect: Tyler Naquin

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

It seems almost inane to open any piece about Tyler Naquin without stating the obvious: he has been an absolute revelation for the Indians thus far. As of this writing, he is batting .324/.387/.636 with 32 R, 12 HR, 29 RBI, and 3 SB in 196 PA. Extrapolated over a 650 PA season, that’s a 106 R, 40 HR, 96 RBI, 10 SB pace. And, yes, there is little value to ‘on-pace’ numbers (particularly with such a small sample size) - but it is intriguing nevertheless.

Despite Naquin’s impressive draft pedigree - he was drafted 15th overall in 2012, one pick ahead of Lucas Giolito, and three picks ahead of Corey Seager - this certainly qualifies as an out of nowhere sort of run. The 25-year-old outfielder has never cracked a top-hundred prospect list, and has most often been described as a fourth-outfield type (Baseball Prospectus actually called him ‘a perfect fourth-outfield prospect’). He did manage to crack our Indians top-ten list, checking in at ninth; here’s what Jason Hunt had to say about him at the time:

Naquin reached AAA in 2015, and has hit well at every stop through the minors before that. The profile here isn't one for most mixed leagues, but if he's given regular playing time, he can provide 7-10 home runs and double-digit steals with a solid batting average. Most reports point to him being a fourth outfielder in real life, which would limit his value to deeper leagues, but a player who provides some production in all categories can be extremely valuable there.

There’s that “fourth outfielder” designation again. It’s also worth noting that Jason, like most every publication, saw Naquin as a player capable of hitting around 10 home runs at his best (which represented his career-high as a professional, set back in 2013). At this juncture, he has hit a total of 22 HR in 1542 minor league plate appearances ... a 9.27 HR per 650 PA pace. And, as I already mentioned, he has already knocked out a dozen home runs in less than 200 PA as a Major Leaguer.

So what happened?

Luck is the first word that comes to mind in any breakout this nature. And, lo and behold, Naquin’s .417 BABIP and 30.8% HR/FB are significantly above the league-averages of .300 and 12.9%, respectively. Moreover, his .417 BABIP is the highest in the Majors among batters with 190-plus PA, and his HR/FB is second. Naquin is ninth in that same subset of players in hard-hit percentage, so it isn’t as though he is getting by on bloop singles (the home run total alone is a testament to this) - but those batted-ball numbers are unsustainable.

What about those home runs? ESPN’s Home Run Tracker classifies round-trippers in one of three categories - just enough (the fence-scrapers - about 27% of home runs), no doubt (the moon shots - 18%), and plenty (everything else - 55%). Seven of Naquin’s home runs this year were categorized as plenty, two were no-doubters, and three were just enough ... which fits rather nicely into the Major League averages as defined by ESPN. Additionally, the MLB-average distance for home runs is 399.8 feet; Naquin checks in at 407.9 feet.

In short, despite the flukish HR/FB number, it genuinely seems as though Naquin is hitting the ball with authority and driving it out of the park. Whether or not this is the product of a change in his approach or mechanics (most pieces on the rookie reference ‘confidence,’ as opposed to any concrete change), or a prolonged hot streak remains to be seen.

Naquin is doing everything that he can to play himself into a long-term role, which may be easier said than done. Lonnie Chisenhall has been solid, Michael Brantley was the team’s best player prior to his injury woes this season, and the top two prospects in the organization (Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier) are outfielders. Naquin’s performance thus far dictates that he could be an everyday player, though, and the Indians have every reason to allow him to prove his merit either way.

And that means, in the short-term, his fantasy value is interesting. Naquin will likely continue to play regularly, and he was always thought of as a player that can hit for average, hit a few home runs, and steal a few bases - so this hot streak notwithstanding, he should have some value as long as he is playing. That being said, I might be inclined to sell-high in the right deal.