The Cincinnati Reds have no dilemmas when it comes to who should man the corner outfield positions, what with two potential MVP candidates currently manning each of those positions. Center field, however, is a different story. With the return of Shogo Akiyama from the injured list at the beginning of May, manager David Bell has had a tough time trying to get playing time for the second-year outfielder.
That lack of playing time is due in part to Tyler Naquin the first couple months of the season. Over the course of his six year career, Naquin is a .271/.325/.453 hitter with a career OPS+ of 102. For most of his career, he’s always been about average. In Cleveland, Naquin was always more of a platoon player. In 2021, he already has more than half the number of plate appearances he got in 2016, his rookie year, when he played in 116 games. He’s currently hitting .259/.333/.506 with a 117 OPS+. He started off hot and has carried that success through May and into June. In April, he recorded an OPS of .914, with six of his 11 home runs coming that month. He’s three shy of his career high in home runs and has the second-most walks of his career.
Naquin really hasn’t gone into a slump either. His real struggle has been against left-handed pitching. In 2021, he’s hitting .265 against right-handers and only .211 against left-handers. This really is nothing new, as he owns a .227 career average against lefties. And it’s why Bell has platooned him when the Reds face a lefty. Naquin is still getting a lot of starts though. He played everyday the last week of May and has started in every game since June 1. Most of this is due to the fact that there are more right-handers in the game of baseball. However, when Naquin does sit, it seems that Scott Heineman gets the start over Akiyama.
While Akiyama struggled to hit lefties in 2020 (.190/.261/.238), he hasn’t gotten much of a chance to hit against them in 2021, even though he had a career .282 average against left-handed pitchers in Japan. Yet, he’s only faced lefties four times this year, and is 1-for-4 against them. Recently, Bell has started double-switching Akiyama into the game in the late innings (three times since May 29th). When he does that, however, Akiyama only gets one or two at-bats a game. It can be hard to build any type of momentum when a player isn’t playing everyday or only coming in late in the game, especially when that player is coming off an injury. It’s hard enough to adjust to the major leagues. Add in an injury during spring training and Akiyama’s had even more to adjust to.
Akiyama deserves a chance to show what he can do. He was a .300 hitter in Japan. Yes, the Nippon Professional Baseball league doesn’t have the same level of pitching that MLB does, but being a career .300 hitter should count for something. Akiyama set a NPB record for most hits in a season with 216 in 2015. He was not just a random player in Japan; he was one of the best hitters in the league.
It does take time to adjust though and the Reds don’t appear to be patient enough right now, with them floundering around .500 and being 4.5 games out of the division race. However, Akiyama has been making progress and might be turning the corner. In the last seven days, he’s hitting .364 with four hits, two RBI and a run scored.
We got a glimpse of what Akiyama can do last year. After an atrocious start hitting .192/.280/.247 in August (I don’t blame him for it, however, what with adjusting to life with a big league team and life in a new country, all with Covid rules and restrictions), he started to hit better. He finished the season with a .317/.456/.365 slash line in September, while walking 15 times and only striking out 12 times.
It all comes down to whether the Reds want another power bat in the lineup or not. Each player has their own unique skill set. Naquin can hit home runs, while Akiyama provides defense and speed. I think Akiyama has earned a chance to get more playing time from what he did last September. And even though he started slow after his injury, he’s starting to hit again. The Reds need that speedy player at the top of lineup who can also get on base for Winker and Castellanos. It might be time to give him the opportunity to play more frequently.
Stats through June 8, 2021.