Friday, October 21, 2011

 

Rise of the Napoli

The transformation of Mike Napoli from Three True Outcomes curiosity into MVP-caliber masher on a World Series team has been one of particular interest to me, since I've been trumpeting Napoli's cause like a fanboy goon since he first came up. Back in 2006, before a lot of fans knew who this guy was, I thought of Napoli as a neat personal find, a guy who, based on my conclusions as an armchair scout, would turn into a nice slugging catcher when offense at the position was scarce. He turned into just that, of course, but there were some bumps along the way, and this season's monumental breakout has surprised even his most rabid backers. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought this guy was capable of putting up an OPS over 1.000 and basically turning into his team's MVP. 

My strange fixation with Napoli dates back to one Saturday in 2006, when I watched him bash a long home run in the Game of the Week (to the awe of whichever horrible announcers FOX had doing that game). It took me about five seconds to run to my trusty Baseball Prospectus to see who this guy was. I hadn't ever heard of him, but he was generally seen as a decent catching prospect with big power but major questions about his defense and ability to make contact in the major leagues. To wit: in 2005 at AA he had bashed 31 homers, but with a high strikeout rate and a low batting average. I was easy to see why some scouts were skeptical.

However, during the days of my baseball nerd life where I was overly hung up on players with insane walk rates, regardless of how well they made contact or if they could actually hit. Perhaps I was drunk on the post-Moneyball Kool-Aid, but I loved any player with high walk and power rates, and I was convinced I'd found a hidden gem in Napoli. Naturally, being the type of person who puts fantasy baseball ahead of other, actual constructive things in life, my next move was to immediately snag Napoli off waivers in my keeper league, and wait for my stealth find to bear fruit.

In his rookie year, Napoli essentially fulfilled my Three True Outcomes-centric expectations. He hit .228/.360/.455 with 16 home runs and a whopping 90 strikeouts in 325 plate appearances. The power and the walks would have made the Gene Tenace/Mickey Tettleton crowd do a backflip. My own perverse reading of the situation was that his strikeout totals and low average would hide his true value, so I could reap the hidden value of his bat for years to come, with none of my leaguemates any the wiser. However, in retrospect, if he had kept that lack of contact skill up after 2006, I think his career would have fallen into the Kelly Shoppach trenches.

While Napoli was generally impressive with the bat in '06, his rookie year saw the beginning of a disturbing trend, that being his losing playing time to teammates who couldn't hit if they were playing a life-sized game of Whack-A-Mole. Before Jeff Mathis came along with his own brand of historic offensive impotence, Napoli was stuck in a time-share with Jose Molina, a genuinely great defensive catcher who could generally be mistaken for a pitcher when he had a bat in his hand. Since Napoli provided a lot of value with his bat, and since Molina was, and always had been, an automatic out, this situation was obscene. What kind of crazy person would willingly cost his team wins by playing inferior players over Napoli? Enter Mike Scioscia.

No one, I think, would ever call Scioscia a bad manager, but this particular blind spot was galling for Napoli fans. The problem was that Scioscia was a catcher in his playing days, and he valued catcher defense to the point where, well...he was willing to give Jeff Mathis nearly 300 at-bats in a season. Napoli was never seen as a good defensive catcher in the minors, and there was a lot of speculation that he'd be moved to first base eventually. The defensive numbers over the years seemingly prove this, but whether or not his defensive struggles were exaggerated, Scioscia never took a shine to him, and always seemed to be looking for reasons to give playing time to vastly inferior players.

In 2007, Napoli began what would essentially turn into an annual battle with injuries, and missed some time in the summer. While he essentially kept up the same slugging and on-base rates as in his rookie season, something magical happened: he cut down his strikeouts. By dropping his strikeout rate to 24% (down from nearly 28% the previous year), he was able to put more balls in play and raise his batting average. He was still a work in progress, but it was a step in the right direction.

2008 was when the breakout came, and Paulie cheered and yelled neener-neener to those who had doubted him. Napoli rode a scorching hot August and September (seriously, look at this) to a final line of .273/.374/.586. He then bashed two home runs against Boston in the playoffs, and it looked as though my strange faith in him was completely justified. Here was the year I had envisioned. Lots of power, lots of walks, a strikeout rate in control, and a status as a top-hitting catcher in baseball. Now if only I hadn't traded him for Jorge Posada's corpse in the fantasy league the year before. Live and learn, I guess.

Napoli's big time 2008 season seemed to cement his status as the keeper of the title of Angels Starting Catcher. It shouldn't really take a .960 OPS to wrest an everyday job from the likes of Mathis and Bobby Wilson, but Napoli could never seem to please Scioscia enough to just give him the lion's share of the time behind the plate. Sure enough, as the sun set on the 2009 season, there was Napoli, still stuck in a bizarre platoon with Mathis, whose lack of a bat was starting to reach comic proportions (well, maybe not for Angel fans).

Napoli's 2009 was a downgrade from the previous season, but his .842 OPS still represented, I felt, a reasonable approximation of what one could expect given his skill set. By this time, my walks/strikeout infatuation was wearing off and I was glad to see that, even though Napoli wasn't the on-base machine that I had envisioned, he had turned into a darn good hitter, especially for a catcher. Even in my TTO-induced haze in 2006, I would have been happy that Napoli had turned into this player.

Well, in 2010, with more playing time came major disappointment. Napoli again began the year in a time-share with Mathis, and it appeared to be business as usual in Angel Town. However, on May 29 came one of those freak occurrences that can change the fortunes of a franchise for years to come. Kendry Morales, LA's slugging first baseman, blasted a game-winning grand slam against Seattle. In the celebration at home plate, Morales broke his leg, ending his season, and the Angels were suddenly without a first baseman. Instead of filling the void externally, the Angels simply shoved Napoli into the position.

Making Napoli the de-facto first baseman seemed to be win-win. The Angels, ever-eager to get Napoli's glove away from the catching position, could leave him in the lineup at a position where defense didn't matter so much. Conversely, Napoli now wouldn't have to worry about spending half the time on the bench and could now let his bat do the talking in a full season's worth of AB's. What could go wrong?

Sadly, despite a career-high in homers, Napoli's bat regressed in almost every other aspect, and his strikeout rate, which had declined so impressively since his rookie season, suddenly shot back up. More disturbing was his sudden hacktastic mentality. The trait that had first caught my eye, his ability to draw walks, now seemed to be diminished. Maybe the Angels' contact-happy franchise mentality got to him, or maybe he just decided to start swinging more on his own, but 2011 saw a decline in walks and a career-low OBP, and an overall drastic decline in value. The complete package added up to something other than an adequate first baseman, and it looked suddenly like this particular light had begun to burn out.

By this point, with Scioscia's distrust of him reaching absurd proportions and Morales's return supposedly imminent (he actually would never return), it appeared Napoli's days in Los Angeles were numbered. With the Angels apparently willing to hold their breath and pray that Mathis could pull a replacement level year out of his backside, GM Tony Reagins traded Napoli to the Blue Jays for the right to pay Vernon Wells his abominable contract. This is the kind of deal only made by a man seemingly hell-bent on driving his franchise into the second division for the next decade; baseball analysts everywhere were aghast. The trade looked awful even at the time, but now it looks twice as insane after Wells put up an astonishingly low .248 OBP in 2011 and Napoli went crazy with the bat.

Napoli, of course, was immediately swung by Toronto to LA's division rival, the Rangers, where he had the kind of year that is solely designed for players who want to rub it in the face of the team that traded them. Napoli's .320/.414/.631 line would have put him high in the running for MVP if he hadn't gotten hurt at midseason, and even with the missed playing time, I'd argue that he was the most valuable Ranger. The upgrade from the string of Bengies and Teagardens of 2010 to Napoli helped offset the loss of Cliff Lee and vaulted the Rangers to their second straight AL pennant. Meanwhile, the Angels got to pay Vernon Wells $23 million and watch playoff baseball under the constant bombardment of "Big Bang Theory" promos.

Napoli homered in Game One of the World Series and is close to capping off a season for the ages. Never, even in my craziest, most optimistic projection of Napoli as a hitter would I have predicted a year like this. The Ballpark in Arlington may have had something to with his monster year, but he actually hit slightly better on the road. So when Napoli comes to bat in the next few games of this World Series, look at him batting there and remember, that there he is, justifying the amatuer scouting opinion of a baseball dweeb simply trying to gain an edge in his fantasy baseball league.

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