Naquin Swings His Way To First-Round Prospect
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Some college freshmen burst onto the scene immediately and make an impact from day one. For others, like Texas A&M outfielder Tyler Naquin, the process takes a little more time. Even for talented players who were drafted out of high school—and Naquin was a 32nd-round pick by the Orioles in 2009—it's a big jump from high school into one of college baseball's power conferences.
"From high school going into freshman year, there's a lot of guys and you feel kind of timid," Naquin said. "If you don't feel that way, I'd say there's something wrong with you. I always knew I could play at this level with anybody, but it took a little time to put it on the field."
The Aggies' patience has paid off. Naquin had an impressive sophomore campaign, and now the first-team Preseason All-America outfielder is one of the best college position players in the 2012 draft class and projects to be a first-round pick this June.
Naquin's calling card is his bat. He knows spraying the ball around the park is his strength, and he tries to take advantage of it. His numbers throughout his amateur career tell the story. His batting averages from his sophomore (.442), junior (.441) and senior (.439) years at Klein Collins High in Spring, Texas, are the top three in school history.
Through the first month of this season, he was hitting .418/.505/.587 with six doubles, a triple, a home run and nine stolen bases. That's an improvement from the already strong numbers he put up last summer with USA Baseball's college national team (.321/.373/.547) and in his breakout sophomore season with the Aggies (.381/.449/.538).
"I'm 6-foot-2, 175 pounds," Naquin said. "I'm not a guy that scouts come to see hit home runs in BP. So when I was in Durham (with Team USA) at the Bulls' stadium, I just really focused on hitting line drives off that Blue Monster, just to show them that I'm not a big guy, but I can hit the ball in the gap or over the fence to the opposite field and if pitchers do come in, I can show power that way."
Baseball has become a year-round, specialized sport, with expensive camps, travel teams and nifty training tools. But for Naquin, the biggest part of his development may have come from the hours he spent out at a creek near his childhood home.
"My dad would cut broomsticks for me and I'd go down to the creek after school and hit rocks for hours with my best friend, Mitch," Naquin said. "I get a lot of hits on a lot of crappy pitches and people ask me how and I'm just like, 'Dude, I can't tell you how many bad rocks my buddy threw me and I just went down and smoked 'em.' "
The hand-eye coordination he developed is evident at the plate, and he's able to drive balls to the opposite field with authority.
"He's got a little Will Clark in that swing," a National League crosschecker said. "I saw him hit a ball to the left of second base, and you would have thought a righthander hit that ball."
In addition to his impressive bat, the Aggies' right fielder has top-of-the-scale arm strength. He also has slightly above-average speed and grew up playing center field, the position he'll likely move back to in pro ball.
Growing up in the Houston area, Naquin rooted for the Astros. So it was a special treat when Texas A&M got to play at Minute Maid Park in the 2010 Houston College Classic. Naquin made sure the memory would last forever by hitting for the cycle against Houston in the last game of the tournament.
"I hit the double first, hit the triple, then the home run," Naquin said. "So heck, all I needed was the single. I had two strikes—the count was 2-2—and I told myself on deck, I said, 'I'm not leaving this ballpark without the cycle.' "
There's another reason Naquin remembers every detail of the experience.
"My mom had actually just got out of breast cancer surgery two days before that and she was in a wheelchair at Minute Maid and it was her first day back to watch me play, so it was definitely a special thing."
Between the lines, Naquin doesn't like to get bogged down with technical details. He likes to keep things simple, relying more on his intense focus than anything else. Kent Meador, his coach at Klein Collins High who has since moved on to Monterey High in Lubbock, still remembers an at-bat from Naquin's sophomore year.
"We were playing a very good Tomball team who had a lefthander—really talented kid—and Tyler had a leadoff, 13-pitch at-bat in the game before the district championship and hit a double," Meador said. "That pitcher lasted about an inning and a half. That's just how Tyler operated—the tighter the situation, the more on the line, the more calm and better he was."
Off the field, it's a different story. Naquin likes to keep things loose. He will often lighten the mood by making everyone—especially Texas A&M head coach Rob Childress—laugh at his antics.
"I'm kind of the guy who'll even out the clubhouse," Naquin said. "There was one time we had a practice and I had an old pair of baseball pants and I cut 'em all the way up. . . I'm talking short, short shorts. I had everything else on, but I had those tiny shorts. And I just came flying out of the dugout and everybody just started cracking up."
It took a while for Naquin to settle in. But wearing short-shorts to loosen up the club is just another way Naquin is putting it all out on the field.