Mahoning Valley Scrappers outfielder Tyler Naquin was the first player I wrote about this season in the New York-Penn League Notebook at MiLB.com. Through 18 games, he is hitting .296/.412/.408 with nine RBI and three stolen bases. The 15th-overall selection in last month’s draft, he is the highest-drafted player to see action in the NYPL so far this season. (He could be supplanted by a few different players before season’s end, including Carlos Correa, Kevin Gausman, Andrew Heaney, Addison Russell, and Gavin Cecchini.)
I spoke with Naquin shortly after the start of the season, when he was just a few games into his career. We talked about his draft experience, when he realized he could play at the collegiate level, and his adjustment to professional baseball.
I talked with Coach Childress from Texas A&M last night, and so I wanted to hit you with the first thing I asked him, which was, how would you describe yourself as a player? What kind of player would you describe yourself as?
Any time I get to play I’m going to play hard. I’m going to try and go 100 percent, whether it’s throwing a guy out, or hitting a ground ball to the shortstop and trying to beat it out, or hitting a ball shallow and trying to turn a single into a double. Just try to extend my game to all the ability and potential that I have in order to make it better.
One thing that jumped out at me about your stat lines from the past couple seasons was that you stole more bases this season and had a higher success rate at it. Was that an area you made a conscious effort to improve in, to add something else to your game?
Yes, after my sophomore year, I only had six or so and I was just trying to hit for average and score a lot of runs and I was able to do that. My junior year I was like, it’ll help out my Draft stock and help out this team at A&M, because if I hit a single I want to turn it into a double by stealing a base. So I ended up stealing 21 bases, quite a few. I just really worked hard on it with my offensive coach.
You mentioned your Draft stock. I noticed you were drafted in 2009 out of high school. How seriously did you consider signing at that point?
I was pretty serious at one point. They had called me in the seventh round and I kind of turned it down. I just felt like the money wasn’t right and it wasn’t my time. They ended up taking me [in the] 33rd [round] and offering me a good amount of money, and I just thought that it’s not my time. I told my family and myself, the decision was up to me, I said, “Well, if they call me in the seventh round, I feel like there’s no doubt I can be a first-rounder out of college.” Me and Coach Childress talked about it, went up on a visit, and ended up committing to A&M. And that was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Were you looking at any other schools besides A&M or was that pretty much the choice from early on?
I talked to Texas quite a bit, and then San Jacinto, to see if I wanted to go the junior college route, but whenever I got in touch with A&M it was all A&M, 100 percent.
Another thing that Coach Childress had mentioned when I had spoken with was he said you really took off when you realized you could dominate the collegiate level, you could dominate the conference and everything. Was there a moment there where you kind of said to yourself, “I can handle this.”? Was there a moment when you realized you could dominate?
Yeah, end of my freshman year. I had struggled – everybody struggles – and towards the end of my freshman year I was playing a little bit timid, like if I was going to make a throw I don’t want to overthrow the base or anything – I’ve got a really strong arm – I don’t want to try to swing too hard and miss. But towards the end, I ended up having eight assists, I was just throwing the hell out of the ball, swinging it and stealing bases and whatnot. And I figured out, I’m supposed to be here. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be the Big 12 Player of the Year next year. I just was myself and played hard every day. Just being me.
You’d mentioned your first Draft day, where you were hearing from some teams and trying to figure out what was going on, where you were going to go. This time around, obviously a little bit different. What was that Draft day like for you this year?
The day before we’d lost our regional. That was a sad day. I knew it was going to be pretty much the last hurrah in college, last game, and I was upset, but I knew I had something to look forward to and I had a really good chance to go in the first round. I went a little bit high, I went about six or seven picks higher than I thought I was going to go. It was an emotional roller coaster. I didn’t have a whole bunch of people there. It was just me and my mom, dad, grandma, my uncle, my brother, couple best friends, and kind of got in a room with my high school assistant coach and just, “Hey, they’re calling my name.” It’s an experience you can’t really explain.
And then one of your teammates went a few picks later. Were you guys in contact at all as things were unfolding?
Yeah, we were. [Michael] Wacha went 19th, I had gone 15th. He went to St. Louis and I just texted him a smiley face because he had over a hundred text messages, I had over a hundred text messages, so we didn’t even touch our phones, but he just sent me a smiley face, I sent him one, because we knew. It was a good time.
You said you weren’t expecting to go quite as high as you did. Did you know the Indians had any interest in you?
I didn’t. I had seen one mock draft that my mom had looked up or something. She’s like, “The Indians have you at 15.” It was kind of midway through. I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” You know, those are just people getting paid to put their thoughts on the computer. I’m not getting my hopes up for anything. I was projected 20th pick to the 30th pick, so I knew my chances for the first round were good. I really thought I was going to St. Louis or Atlanta, but I was drafted into a great organization. All these people treat everybody like family, and put you in the best position to succeed in this organization. I couldn’t ask for any better coaches at Mahoning Valley with the Scrappers or the guys that do the scouting program or even at the top.
I noticed you signed very quickly. What was the thought process behind that?
I couldn’t fathom the thought of a guy out of college getting $1.75 million and trying to bug the team for a little bit more when not everybody in the Draft is getting that slot number because of the new deal. Not everybody got their full slot bonus. I felt like mine was higher than what it should’ve been. I was able to get a lot of money, and I thought, “Hey, if they want to give me that much money, I’m going to go out and start playing so I can get up to the Indians and help the big ball club as soon as I can. I just can’t fathom the thought that you get paid that much money and you don’t want to go play baseball.
Did the earlier deadline impact that at all? Do you think if it had been the August deadline that you might have waited a little longer?
No, because like I said, even the Astros, they had $7.2 million and I think the kid [Carlos Correa] only got 4-something. The farther off the pick you go, they’re trying to save money to get other guys, and that’s something that the bargaining agreement does. So it’s either the deal is done when it’s signed, or there’s not much wiggle room but maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars. I felt like I got a great deal. I just wanted to start playing. I’d rather be here than sitting at home, not doing anything and trying to think about how pro ball’s going to be the next summer.
So you’ve been a pro for a couple weeks now. How are you adjusting to it so far?
It’s awesome. I mean, I don’t know if it’s really that big of an adjustment. At A&M, we were grinding every day. We had a couple more days off than here, obviously, also had class and whatnot, but I played three postseasons at A&M. It’s just like pro ball. You don’t have any school, you get meal money. Here you get a contract and whatnot, but it’s just a different bat, to be honest. A different bat and some good baseball players and just playing every day.
You played in the College World Series last year. That ended recently. What was your experience like there?
It was amazing. It’s something that you start off the season and that’s the goal. It’s not to win the Big 12 championship, it’s to get to the show, and that’s the College World Series. We made it and we went two-and-out, obviously wanted something more out of it but there’s a lot to be said whenever a team hits a streak, and we had a pretty tough streak there in the middle and bounced back and were able to make it, got to play in front of 25,000 people in two games each. That was a great experience. Media and everybody. It was definitely great.
One more thing about adjusting to the pro game. I noticed you’ve had a day off here and there. Is that something that’s been set up, certain days off mixed in?
Yeah, yeah, the general manager up there with the Indians and the head trainer said, “Don’t rush him, don’t push him too much,” I guess. The top picks they want to try to ease on in there, which is fine. It was tough, my first debut I had two days off where I ended up going 3-for-4 and the next day I ended up going 0-fer. It’s tough to find your timing. You have to have at-bats in order to do that. It was a little bit different, but I was able to play and had another 3-for-4 night last night. Like I said, just playing every day and getting your reps in.
What do you hope to accomplish this season? What’s going to make this a successful season for you, in your eyes?
In my case, I think baseball is going to pan out for me the way God wants it to. It’s really not in my hands other than how much work I put into it and I believe that the game pays you back. You’re in the weight room and you want to skip sets? That’s alright, God’s watching. It’s not like he’s going to say, “Boom, you’re going 0-for-4,” but I feel like the game definitely pays you back. Like I said, just play hard every day, just try to hit the baseball and throw people out and whatnot.
Thanks to Mahoning Valley Scrappers broadcaster Tim Pozsgai for coordinating this interview.