ZEBULON — To watch Tyler Naquin play for the Carolina Mudcats on a nightly basis, one might think the 22-year-old center fielder had a lot more experience in pro baseball.
But he has actually played only about 120 games.
The 6-2, 175-pounder out of Spring, Texas, was drafted in the 33rd round in 2009 by the Baltimore Orioles, but he decided to go to college instead.
And after three seasons at Texas A&M, in which he was an All-American right fielder by his sophomore year and played for Team USA’s Collegiate National squad, he had turned himself into a first-round pick.
The Cleveland Indians selected Naquin 15th in 2012, moving him back to center and sending him to Mahoning Valley of the New York-Penn League. There he hit .270 without a homer and 13 RBIs in 36 games.
So the Indians decided he could skip the Midwest League and start this season as a Carolina Mudcat. Everything has worked out well, as he was elected to the Carolina League team for the annual All-Star game with the California League.
“College was tremendous on the whole learning curve,” Naquin said of his time as an Aggie. “I believe baseball is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical to be honest. Once you get to a certain level everybody’s really good. Everybody was the No. 1 player at his high school or his college team.
“I think playing college ball taught me consistency. You don’t throw at-bats away whether you’re losing by 10 runs or by one and you need to get on. Take your walk when you get it, and don’t take anything for granted because it can be taken away at any moment.”
Naquin was an easy pick for the all-star game, as through his first 61 games he was hitting .304 with six homers and 27 RBI as Carolina’s everyday leadoff man.
“Obviously college was good for him,” said Mudcats manager David Wallace, himself an alumnus of Vanderbilt. “It’s just the right thing for some guys. I’m sure he grew up a lot as a man and as a baseball player as well.
“He’s very grounded, and you don’t always see that in guys who are as successful and talented as he is. But he knows there’s a lot of work for him to do and he’s willing to do it.”
Wallace said he has been impressed with Naquin’s defense all season long.
“Defensively he hasn’t made that much progress, and I say that as an absolute compliment because he’s been great since Day One,” the manager said. “I hadn’t even realized that he didn’t even play center field in college. I know we project him as a center fielder, and so I guess I had always assumed he played center field just from watching him out there. He’s probably the best minor-league center fielder I’ve played with or seen at this level.”
Naquin said he feels like center is his natural position.
“I was a center fielder my whole life until I went to college, and then I made the transition back,” he said. “I love center field. I think it’s easier to play than the other two outfield spots. You can get a better jump, a better read on the ball. You’re the captain of the outfield. If you’ve got a good feeling for a guy’s inside-out swing you shade him over a little bit.”
Offense has been a little more of a challenge, but Naquin has been consistently passing the test.
“In this league, guys are more around the zone - they’re pitchers rather than throwers, and the bullpens are a little bit deeper,” Naquin explained. “I’m just trying to stay humble and not change too much mechanically. It’s all between the ears once it gets to a certain point.
“I’m trying to cut down on my strikeouts, so I’m trying to level out my swing. I just need to get better at controlling the strike zone. I’m a handsy hitter – my eye-hand coordination is good, but it also gets me into trouble. Just because I can hit something doesn’t mean it’s a strike or I should swing at it. I think as soon as I can control the strike zone better I’ll shoot right up. It’s been going a lot better for me, but that’s something I can always work on.”
Wallace said all Naquin really needs to do is what he’s already been doing.
“Offensively, his progress has been very impressive,” the manager said. “The adjustments he’s made, just staying behind the ball - he had tended to get out on his front foot some, but now he’s really staying behind it. He’s not swinging harder, but he’s driving the ball. We couldn’t be happier with him.”