Tyler Naquin has “future batting champion“ written all over him. The Cleveland Indians selected the 21-year-old outfielder with the 15th-overall pick of this year’s draft, and his sweet, left-handed stroke was the primary reason. He hit .381 over his sophomore and junior seasons at Texas A&M, prompting Baseball America to rate him the best pure hitter in the college ranks.
Naquin, who received a $1.75 million signing bonus, is beginning his professional career with the short-season Mahoning Valley Scrappers. Last week he sat down to discuss his bat, his defense, the draft, and his first month of pro ball. In separate interviews, Indians scouting director Brad Grant and Scrappers manager Ted Kubiak shared their thoughts on the club‘s top pick.
NAQUIN on how he learned how to hit: “I’ve never had a hitting instructor in my life. I’ve never gone to any type of hitting camp, or anything like that. I’ve only had baseball coaches. It has mainly been my dad. He’s always said, ‘Hey, slow and easy feet, pick it up and put it down, swing the bat.’
“I’ve been blessed. I’ve always had kind of a natural way of swinging a baseball bat. When I was younger, I used to hit a lot of rocks, using a broomstick. My best friend and my brother would flip me rocks.
“People sometimes say I’m a bad-ball hitter. If it’s a low pitch, I can still flick my hands down there and shoot a line drive. It’s all hand-eye coordination, to be honest.”
On his hitting approach: “My approach to hitting is very simple: I put myself into a position to be able to make good, solid contact with any pitch. That’s whether there are no strikes or two strikes. I feel just as comfortable hitting with two strikes as I do with none, or with one. My concept is that if you hit within the strike zone, you give yourself the best opportunity to hit. If you start swinging at stuff outside the strike zone, that widens up your eye range, your contact ability around the zone.
“I always tell myself: Slow and simple with my feet, real soft, and just put myself in the best position to hit. On the front side… I stand pretty narrow. Up and down, I’m real soft. I don’t have a high leg kick. I don’t have a toe-tap, or a toe roll, it’s just up-and-down real soft.
“The main thing is getting off your back side. You don’t ever want to sit back on your back side. I always feel like it’s getting through and staying strong on the front side. If it’s off-speed, or whatnot, you can get fooled and still be able to break the front side in order to go get that changeup.”
On his swing path and letting the ball travel: “My hands start tall and from there it’s a downward path to the ball. [The bat] stays in the strike zone as long as I can keep it there. If I’m late, hopefully I can shoot a line drive over third. If I’m early, I can still keep it fair to the pull side. I try to keep it in the hitting zone as long as possible.
“I like to let the ball get deep. I feel that if you’re out in front of stuff, you start chasing. Your depth perception gets a little crazy. If you let the ball travel, you can always shoot line drives over the third base dugout. I can track the ball from there. If a fastball gets up on me, I can still get a knock. I can react to the breaker if I’m letting it get deep, as well.”
On pitch recognition: “Some people say they look at spin, or see a dot for a slider, or rotation for a changeup. Personally… it’s not that I don’t agree with that, but it’s something I’ve never really bought in on. I’m mainly just seeing the pitch out of his hand. There comes a point where you can pretty much just pick up the pitch out of the hand. If it’s a bender, it’s going to be up. A slider is going to be from the side a little bit. A fastball is just going to be straight on.
“Regardless of the pitcher, the ball has to come out of his hand. I don’t look at a spot on their hat to get my load started, or anything like that. I just see it and hit it. If it’s over the strike zone, swing the bat. On every pitch, you’re ready and thinking hit, hit, hit. If the pitch is a ball, it’s no, no, no.
“You don’t want to swing at everything that looks like it might be a strike. If I’m facing a right-hander who has a good, hard breaker, if it starts in the zone I’m probably going to try to stay away from it, because it’s probably going to break inside to me. Hopefully it does end up off the plate. Different guys have different breakers. And if a left-hander throws something that starts off inside to me, I may need to swing at it, because it could end up over the plate.
“Against most pitchers, I’m looking middle away. That’s unless it’s a guy who is throwing slop up there — he’s throwing soft breakers and whatnot. Then I’ll turn the field a little bit. It’s mainly middle away, and then I’ll react in, whenever they want to come in.”
On the need to develop more power: “I don’t think about power at all, to be honest. In a round of BP, I can hit as many home runs as I’d like to, but it’s not something I need to try to do. I’m an average guy that gets on and steals bases. I hit doubles. I’m not going to try to do something out of the ordinary. The power will come. Once I put on a little more weight and grow into a little more man strength, it’s going to come.”
TED KUBIAK on Naquin: “At the plate, he’s holding his own. He’s over .300 right now. He’s not intimidated by either left-handed or right-handed pitchers. He puts the bat on the ball. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what kind of hitter he is, because while he hits the ball, sometimes his strike zone gets a little big.
“We’ve talked about his stride. We’re trying to solidify that and get him down to a little more consistent approach. We have a 30-day policy here where we kind of leave guys alone and don’t say much to them, but he‘s aware of it. He already knows it. It’s not like he’s being told, ‘This is what you have to do.’ There have been no changes made, we’re really just watching and evaluating him.
“He’s got good hands. He told me one day that when he was small, his dad had him hitting with broom handles. He was throwing bad pitches to him and forcing him to use his hands more. He’s already shown us that. He’s flicked the bat at a couple of balls that have been away and hit them over the left fielder’s head, or the centerfielder’s head. He’s hit some line drives by just using his hands. That’s a real plus. Anybody who can use their hands like that has a step up on most hitters.”
BRAD GRANT: “He has a a knack to be able to center the baseball, and the knack to be able to get a base hit when needed. In time we feel he should be able to develop the power that he needs to in order to be an everyday centerfielder.’
NAQUIN on playing center field: “I like center a lot better [than the corners]. You can see the pitches — you can see the ball out of your pitcher’s hand and you can get a little better read, a little better jump. You’re in control out there and kind of call the shots. Not that the centerfielder calls a lot of shots, but you might suggest to the right- or left-fielder that he needs to move a little to his right or to his left, or back, or in.”
KUBIAK: “He’s new in center field. He’s been a right fielder, but we’re trying to make him a centerfielder and he’s done a good job so far. It looks like he goes back on the ball very well. I’m still watching how he comes in on it. Reading the ball off the bat is obviously different out there, because you’re looking straight in at the hitter.
“He’s got a good arm, a well-above-average arm, and it‘s pretty accurate. He’s made a couple of throws already that have surprised me. I haven’t seen that kind of throwing, managing here.”
GRANT: “Along with his bat, we were impressed with his secondary tools as well — his ability to throw and his ability to run. We thought he was a solid defender in right field with the ability to move over into center field. We felt it could be a pretty easy transition for him.
“A lot of our conversations went back and forth as to his ability to hit for power, as well as to his ability to make the transition to center field. [Area scout] Kyle [Van Hook] had actually seen him play in high school, so he had seen him play center.”
THE DRAFT PROCESS
NAQUIN on being drafted by the Indians: “The scout who signed me was Kyle Van Hook, who had seen me play all the way from high school on up. He was with Seattle before, and this was his first year with Cleveland. He got me and we were able to sign, and all that good stuff.
“I had gotten an agent — I was with Hendricks [Sports Management] and had Matt Laird — right after I played with Team USA in the summer of 2011. I told him, ‘Hey man, don’t worry about me worrying about the draft.’ My objective was to win a national championship with [Texas] A&M. I wanted to be a first-rounder, but the money wasn’t going to be a problem. If you go in the first round, the money is always going to be there. I played hard for A&M, because that’s who I was with, and it gave me a chance to be here with Cleveland.
“Sometimes, people would say, ‘Hey man, I heard you have a chance to go in the first round,’ and those were short conversations. You don’t want to talk about that, not when you’re in college and focusing on going to a regional. It’s something that comes and goes, and it came and went for me really fast. I spent three years at A&M and now I’m already in pro ball. In some ways, it almost seems as though I never went to A&M.
“Come draft day, I figured anything could happen. Everybody was falling off the board, although not in exact order — a couple guys slid and a couple guys jumped up — but everyone who was supposed to go in the first round was going in the first round. It just happened to pan out for me. I was blessed that the Indians decided to pick me. I thought I was going to be picked somewhere between 20th and 26th. It ended up that Cleveland needed a guy like me.
“There was speculation that Cleveland could take me, or that St. Louis or Arizona could take me, but I didn’t know who exactly it would be. There were a couple of phone calls earlier in the day, talking about different things, but I wasn’t sure. I found out it was Cleveland when I heard my name.
“I didn’t talk to Brad Grant until after they had called my name. He called and congratulated me. I ended up flying up there about a week-and-a-half later and was able to sit down and spend a couple of hours with him and a couple of the other guys up there.”
GRANT: “He was a guy that we targeted earlier. After his sophomore season, and after his summer with Team USA, he was definitely on our radar screen. Then, as we went in to see him play, each time out we were more and more impressed with his ability to hit. He was on our radar for awhile, and as the draft proceeded he was the guy we wanted.
“He became out pick about 10 minutes before it became our pick. He was on our board in a good spot, and as the draft played out in front of us, and some guys we had ahead of him went, he pretty much became our target guy.
“We called and talked to his advisor right before we selected him. We discussed parameters and stuff like that. We didn’t talk to him directly, but we did talk to his advisors.”
THE DEVELOPMENT PROCESS
KUBIAK: “Tyler has been a nice surprise as our number-one draft pick. I think the first thing that stands out is the kind of individual he is. He’s very baseball savvy, more so than… that might be the wrong thing to say about other players that we’ve had, but he’s pretty attentive to what’s going on out there. He’s made some observations already, and articulated them to me during the game, that have been surprising. They’ve been right; they’ve been good. He’s very intense and watches what’s going on. He knows how to play the game, for sure.”
NAQUIN: “After the draft, they brought me in and I went through a team workout. I sat the next day. On the third day, we came home from a road trip and I played the home game. Then I sat for two days, played one game, and the sat for three days. It was on-and-off, on-and-off, and now they’re finally allowing me to go with a full head of steam where I don’t have to sit anymore. It’s all up to Ted Kubiak, whether he wants me in the lineup or not. Not playing can be a little frustrating, because I know I’m healthy, and Ted knows I’m healthy. They’re just being precautionary with me, and I understand that. Being a first-round guy, they want to make sure that nothing crazy happens because of rushing me.
“They’re mostly letting me play. Tony [Mansolino], my hitting coach, always says, ‘Hey, if you want me to watch something.’ He also says, ‘Just be yourself. If I see something that needs tweaking, we’ll talk about it and see how you feel about it.’ Same thing with Ted. He just tells me to go out there and be myself, and to not try to do too much. He doesn’t want me to try to do something I don’t normally do, just because I’m a first-rounder.
“Being a first-round pick is great, and everything, but I’m just being myself and playing Tyler Naquin’s style of baseball. That’s what’s going to get me where I need to be.”