Cleveland Indians Made Right Call in Demoting Tyler Naquin

Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

Cleveland Indians Made Right Call in Demoting Naquin, Even If It Was Unpopular

Ask most what they thought of the decision by the Cleveland Indians to send rookie outfielder Tyler Naquin back to Triple-A, and the answer you’d get from most is the same. The Indians are crazy! The Indians are stupid! How could the Indians send down a guy batting over .300?

And that’s just a sampling of what fans thought when the Indians announced they optioned Naquin to make room for Mike Clevinger a week ago. Not only did they send down a rookie hitting .317, but they kept a journeyman veteran in Michael Martinez over him? They have to be crazy…right? Wrong. The Cleveland Indians made the right decision in demoting Naquin, even if it wasn’t a popular move. 

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Make no mistake, Tyler Naquin was hitting very well in his time in the big leagues. Despite very little time at the Triple-A level (50 games in 2015), Naquin hit .317 with a .751 OPS in 27 games with the Cleveland Indians. He had a solid 106 wRC+ and league average 100 OPS+ in the big leagues. He did everything you wanted from a rookie…but there were some serious concerns with those numbers.

The first number that jumps out when looking at Naquin’s numbers is his ridiculously high .476 BABIP (batting average on balls in play).  Just how high is that? Well…league average is about .300 (currently it’s .298).  Where Naquin really benefited was his average on groundballs, as he hit .375 on grounders. Again, league average on grounders this season is .232.  Now, Naquin does have decent speed and he has a solid bat so it’s not unreasonable to expect him to hit better than league average on grounders, but to hits nearly 150 points better than league average? That’s a bit much and regression is definitely coming. Even Francisco Lindor “only” hit .337 on grounders in 2015.

Another area of concern with Naquin’s bat was his plate discipline or lack thereof. In his 27 games, Naquin was striking out nearly one out of every three times up (32.3%). In addition, he walked just 3.1% of the time. Naquin has had bouts where he struggled with strikeouts in the minors as well though he always managed to work through it. The lack of walks is something new for Naquin as he always found ways to get on base in the minors. Of course, the major leagues aren’t the minor leagues so just because he was able to draw walks in the minors doesn’t mean he’d ever be able to do it.

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Defense Matters

Probably the biggest concern with Naquin in his small stint in the big leagues was not his offense, but rather his defense. In just 161.1 innings, Naquin posted a horrific -8 DRS (defensive runs saved) and -33.2 UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating per 150 games). The -8 DRS is (still) tied for the second-worst in all of baseball for outfielders behind just Jay Bruce (-10) and is the worst in the American League. His UZR/150 is fifth-worst in all of baseball (minimum 100 innings in the outfield).

Now, defensive metrics are far from perfect and they are definitely not great when used in samples smaller than three years; however, it was pretty clear that Naquin was playing well below average defense in centerfield just from watching him. He looked lost many times on balls over his head and covered less than ideal range. Combining that defense with the league average offense, and it’s no surprise that Fangraphs has Naquin at a -0.2 fWAR on the season. Should the Indians really be blamed for optioning a guy that has been a negative value player on the year? Hardly.

This is why the Indians made the right call in optioning Tyler Naquin to Triple-A. He simply wasn’t playing well overall. Sure that batting average was nice but when the rest of his game lacked, it was clear that some more seasoning in the minors was best for not only the Indians  but for Naquin himself.

Watching Naquin in the minors suggest he’s far from terrible in centerfield. A natural right fielder who has played almost exclusively center in the minors, he’s got average range with a plus arm. Some of the struggles are likely a result of nerves and “rookie mistakes” as he’s not used to the big league parks. But some of the issues are things that are simply limitations on Naquin’s part. The best way to describe Naquin is average-to-slightly above average in centerfield, not some gold glover that many were hoping for when the season began. With more work in the minors I definitely expect him to improve over what the Indians saw in the first month, but don’t expect greatness from him on defense.

More Work and Everyday Playing Time Needed

Overall, Naquin needed to get more everyday playing time to try and get the bat back to where it needed to be. Playing only against right-handed pitching, Naquin got only sporadic playing time with the Indians in his two stints with the club. While many wanted him to play more, his minor league numbers versus left-handed pitching suggested the Indians were handling him correctly. Heading into 2016, Naquin had hit .303/.371/.452 versus right-handed pitching in four minor league seasons while struggling to a .244/.329/.324 batting line versus left-handed pitching.

Unfortunately, the inconsistent playing time made it difficult for Naquin to work on his defense and plate discipline. However, in Triple-A, Naquin is able to get more consistent, everyday playing time to help in the field and at the plate. In 14 games with the Columbus Clippers this year, Naquin has nearly the same batting average as in Cleveland (.310); however, his OBP is .369 thanks to a walk rate of 9.2%. He is also striking out far less (16.9%) than he was in the big leagues. Of course, all this was to be expected given the lowered level of pitching, but it’s still great to see nevertheless.

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I’m sure many will still feel the Indians made a terrible mistake sending down Naquin, despite the evidence to the contrary. Batting average reigns supreme and even evidence that it was a hollow success and regression was almost certainly coming, most will cry foul. Wins Above Replacement, despite its mass respect, still doesn’t matter to many. But the fact is, Naquin was a sub-0 win player, while Rajai Davis and Jose Ramirez are at 0.9 and 1.5 wins above replacement, respectively. Even Marlon Byrd has been a 0.6 win player this season.

Bottom line, Tyler Naquin was one of the worst overall players on the roster. Whether people want to admit or accept it, sending him to Triple-A was the right move Clevelandevleand Indians.