Taking a peek at the counting stats leaderboards this early in the year, you’ll still see the usual suspects: Ronald Acuna Jr. topping the home run charts, J.D. Martinez atop the RBI list, but hot on both of their heels is Cincinnati Reds right fielder Tyler Naquin. The owner of a lifetime .777 OPS has clubbed six home runs and has 18 RBI through 14 games for the Reds after being non-tendered by Cleveland during the offseason.
Naquin struggled in the shortened 2020 season for Cleveland. He closed out his tenure in Cleveland with a .218/.248/.383 line and put up -0.6 WAR. The Reds signed Naquin on a minor league deal to add to their outfield depth and he tore it up in Spring Training. Eight extra base hits and a 1.042 OPS saw him make the Reds roster.
That faith has been repaid as the hot Spring Training has continued into the first few weeks of the regular season. As previously mentioned, Naquin sits tied for second on the home run leaderboard and has clubbed as many homers as Nelson Cruz and Mike Trout. What has led to this breakout for a player who seems at face value to have been a fourth outfielder for most rosters? Has he been the benefactor of a lot of batted ball luck? Actually, no.
The peripheral numbers around Naquin’s hot start show that he has been increasingly unlucky during this early stretch. Naquin is hitting .260 to start the year, but has a .226 BABIP or batting average on balls in play. He has an elite wOBA at .412, but an even better xWOBA at .464 and his xBA or expected batting average is .326.
Naquin has been barreling the ball at a much higher rate than he had before in his career. He currently has a career high barrel% at 18.9%; almost double from last season. He also is in the 98th percentile in all of baseball in average exit velocity. He is in the 97th percentile in hard hit percentage. Naquin is tearing the cover off the ball. He is still striking out at a 24% rate and still not walking at a highly increased rate, so where is that big change coming from?
Naquin struggled against the fastball in 2020, hitting just .183 against the heater and slugging just .310. This year is a different story, however, bumping the average up to .310 and the slug% to .655 and an average exit velocity of 97.1. He is doing damage against off-speed pitches the same way, slugging 1.083 with an xSLG of 1.210.
Naquin is achieving these results because of a major upswing in his pull%. He is pulling the ball more than he ever has and is hardly using the opposite field, pulling the ball 44.7% of the time and only going to the opposite field 13% of the time. A dead pull hitting lefty with the kind of exit velocity makes him a dangerous hitter to face. Playing in hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark will help as well.
There are still a lot of games to play before we crown Tyler Naquin as the next great slugger in Major League Baseball, but his hot start has him amongst elite company for the moment.