Mike Napoli Is On The Verge Of Superstardom

By Eriq Gardner //

Last off-season, the Toronto Blue Jays sent Vernon Wells to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for Mike Napoli. As soon as it happened, commentators were lauding Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos for the Herculean feat of getting rid of Wells’ bloated and back-loaded $126 million contract, so much so that it almost became an afterthought when the team shipped off Napoli to the Texas Rangers in a deal shortly thereafter.

Considering the mediocre season that Wells is having with the Angels, the trade is still going to look good for Anthopoulos. However, it’s worth considering whether a real huge mistake was made by the Toronto GM by waiving adieu to Napoli so quickly.

Napoli isn’t just having a very good season down south; He’s having an awesome one — a breakout campaign that’s gone largely ignored thanks to the fact that he missed a few weeks in June with a strained oblique and entered the season as a part-time player thanks to defensive shortcomings.

Lately, Napoli’s hitting strengths have outweighed the fielding negatives, and he’s been playing pretty much every day. If this is a sign of things to come in future seasons, Napoli could be a dark-horse candidate for league MVP.

Sound like a stretch?

Consider the following:

In fantasy leagues, on a per-game basis this season, Napoli rates out to the 10th most valuable batter at any position in baseball (through September 16th). Here’s the top 12 batters on a per-game basis according to our calculations:

  1. Ryan Braun
  2. Curtis Granderson
  3. Jose Bautista
  4. Matt Kemp
  5. Jacoby Ellsbury
  6. Carlos Gonzalez
  7. Adrian Gonzalez
  8. Albert Pujols
  9. Josh Hamilton
  10. Mike Napoli
  11. Robinson Cano
  12. Miguel Cabrera

Yes, if playing time was adjusted evenly, Napoli’s stat line of 26 HR, 67 RBIs, 67 Runs, 4 Steals, and a .312 BA would compare with the elite.

Even with just 333 at-bats this season, Napoli has been plenty valuable for the Rangers, even if his glove will never resemble Yadier Molina. According to FanGraphs, Napoli has been the second most valuable catcher in baseball this season, only behind Alex Avila, who has garnered 513 at-bats.

Texas is known as one of the best hitting environments in baseball, and Napoli’s success there was somewhat anticipated by those who recognized he’d be moving to a more friendly home stadium. We can credit a portion of Napoli’s statistical surge to being a member of the Rangers, but there’s other reasons to marvel at what Napoli is doing in 2011.

Start with his batting eye.

Among all hitting metrics, the measures of a player’s plate discipline (contact rate, strikeout rate, walk rate) tend to be the most stable year-to-year. However, there’s always exceptions. Napoli has jumped from a 0.31 BB/K rate in 2010 to a 0.69 BB/K rate in 2011, a 123% improvement that’s the second largest gain (behind John Buck) among batters with at least 300 at-bats. Other players who have strongly improved their plate discipline this season include Jose Reyes, David Ortiz, and Matt Kemp. Pretty good company to be in.

Napoli was long considered to be a batter who had quite a bit of pop, but would be a batting average anchor — a poor man’s Adam Dunn if you will. This season, though, Napoli has his average above .300 and an OBP above .400, slightly boosted by a fortunate BABIP but not so much that his peripherals don’t indicate his .300+/.400+/.600+ statline is a fluke. Measurable gains in contact and walk rates support what Napoli is doing in 2011.

One other thing that Napoli is doing much better this year is hitting right-handed pitchers. In 2010, he hit an atrocious .208 versus righties while hitting a lovely .305 versus lefties. This season, there’s no noticeable split difference: He’s hitting .313 versus righties and .311 versus lefties.

The justification for not getting Napoli into the lineup is withering. A batter who gets on base more than 40% of the time with ample power is pretty rare in baseball. For days he’s not playing catcher, Napoli can easily provide more value to the Rangers than any other option at first-base and DH.

Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington seems to be noticing. In April and May, Napoli had 108 combined at-bats. He’s now on pace for 170 cumulative at-bats in August and September.

Add everything up, and there’s a reasonable chance that Napoli could top 500 at-bats for the first time in his career in 2012. If that happens, his upside is 40 HRs, 10 steals, a .300+ average, 100+ runs, and 100+RBIs. Since he’s eligible at catcher, that would make him the most valuable player in fantasy baseball. That’s his statistical potential heading into next year.

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