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Mike Napoli: Historically Powerful Catcher, Defensive Dilemma

Posted by John Autin on May 30, 2011

Mike Napoli had a big game Monday that was more in character than Sunday's romp around the bases, hitting 2 HRs and a double for Texas. It was his 3rd straight day with a HR, and gave him 10 HRs in 104 AB this year, and 102 HRs in 1,654 career AB. Only one catcher with at least 100 HRs has a higher HR% than Napoli (HR as % of AB):

Now, it's not fair to compare Napoli to catchers whose careers are over, since he has yet to experience his decline phase. But even if we restrict the search to "through age 29" or "first 6 seasons," only Napoli and Piazza meet the criteria of 100 HRs and a 6% HR rate.

Napoli's not a great player, of course. By all accounts, he's a poor defensive catcher; he's had negative dWAR in each of his 5 prior seasons, and the Angels essentially dumped him last winter, preferring to enter the season with a historically bad offensive catcher who's no Gold Glover, either. But Napoli is a better offensive player than most people realize. Besides the raw power, he takes some walks, adding almost 100 points of OBP to his modest .250 BA. He's not slow, stealing a few bases a year and occasionally making the highlight reel with his wheels. He averages just 10 GDP per 162 games, which is darn low for a RHB catcher.

But he reminds me of Piazza's last few years, in terms of posing a positional dilemma for their clubs. Their offense is excellent for a catcher, but the defense is a serious problem. If you put them at 1B or DH, their offensive edge at the position takes a big hit; a 120 OPS+ is only average for a 1B. And they're not exactly going to help you with the glove at 1B, either. Piazza's dWAR in 2004, when the Mets tried to convert him to 1B, was about as damaging as his worst years behind the plate.

I'd rather have the Rangers' dilemma with Napoli than the Mets' with Piazza. Nobody is expecting Napoli to play every day or to anchor any one position; Texas has started him in 15 games behind the plate, 11 at 1B and 5 at DH, and he's not interfering with any well-established players at those positions. And so far, it's working; they're 18-13 when he starts, 11-12 when he sits.

If you ran a club with Napoli on the roster, what would you do with him?

P.S. Here are the 7 catchers who, in their first 6 seasons, had at least 50 HRs and a 5% HR rate:

1 Mike Piazza 168 2558 1992 1997 23-28 689 2856 423 854 110 3 533 272 58 413 10 0 16 72 10 11 .334 .398 .576 .974 *2/D3 LAD
2 Roy Campanella 158 2644 1948 1953 26-31 754 3007 433 772 129 13 563 335 0 300 17 11 0 85 20 8 .292 .375 .530 .905 *2 BRO
3 Johnny Bench 154 2887 1967 1972 19-24 782 3228 421 781 142 12 512 288 54 470 8 4 41 75 20 21 .271 .334 .488 .822 *2/39758 CIN
4 Mike Napoli 100 1648 2006 2011 24-29 542 1927 264 410 84 4 269 223 10 487 34 2 20 35 22 14 .249 .346 .487 .833 *2/3D LAA-TEX
5 Chris Hoiles 80 1474 1989 1994 24-29 457 1729 217 393 67 1 213 222 10 303 17 5 11 35 3 5 .267 .367 .476 .843 *2/D3 BAL
6 Ed Bailey 69 1364 1953 1958 22-27 448 1609 177 354 50 9 207 212 30 227 9 13 11 24 10 5 .260 .360 .461 .821 *2 CIN
7 David Ross 57 982 2002 2007 25-30 371 1125 114 218 44 3 141 103 12 303 13 11 16 23 0 0 .222 .300 .447 .747 *2 LAD-TOT-CIN
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/30/2011.

23 Responses to “Mike Napoli: Historically Powerful Catcher, Defensive Dilemma”

  1. Johnny Twisto Says:

    JA, as a Mets fan, you may have a better perspective on this than I. It's always been my impression that Piazza was *not* a terrible defensive catcher aside from the throwing. Of course base stealing is the easiest aspect of catcher defense both to observe and to measure, and I certainly saw Piazza make some miserable throws. Still, it was always my impression that the anecdotal evidence supported Piazza's skills in blocking pitches and in that elusive field of "calling a good game." I don't have the energy to study Piazza's WP/PB numbers now, but I believe Sean Forman did a study on that once; perhaps he can chime in.

    I don't really have an impression of Napoli's defense. I know many Angels fans were frustrated that Mathis got so much playing time over him. My feeling is that Scioscia has shown managerial acumen in other areas, and he was a fine defensive catcher himself, so if he felt Mathis was a far superior defender, I'd give him some benefit of the doubt. Ron Washington is probably basing his opinion of Napoli's D in part on what he's seen/heard in the past. As the season continues, if Torrealba continues to be a weak hitter, yet Napoli gets no more time behind the plate, Washington is probably making that decision based on his observations and perhaps his pitchers' comments. I don't feel qualified to second-guess them and I don't think we are yet able to measure catcher defense in a satisfactory manner.

  2. Chuck Says:

    "Only one catcher with at least 100 HRs has a higher HR% than Napoli (HR as % of AB):"

    Napoli has 81 HR as a catcher, the other 21 are either as a DH or 1B.

  3. John Autin Says:

    @1, Johnny T -- My impression of Piazza's performance behind the plate, outside of throwing out base stealers, is that he was about average. And whatever shortcomings he had weren't for lack of trying.

    But the question is a little like the old saw, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" Piazza's performance against base stealers was brutal. He averaged 103 SB per 1,000 defensive innings and a 23% CS rate; from 1996-2002, he averaged 121 SB per year. I don't have a handy reference for comparison, but I'm pretty sure those numbers are awful.

    When he was a great offensive player, we were happy with the trade-off. But it was always going to end badly, and it did.

  4. BSK Says:

    Napoli has a WAR of 12.1 in 5+ seasons. Considering that he has generally been a part-time player (1927 PA), that works out to .628 WAR per 100PAs. Assuming 600 PA (an unlikely number for him to reach, but a fair estimate of a full season), that works out to 3.77, a pretty solid WAR for a starting catcher. Yes, his DWar has been negative every year but this one, but never disastrously so (total DWar of -1.7, -2.1 before this year).

    Looking at platoon splits, we see a career tOPS+ of 89 (raw OPS of 788) vs RHP and 129 vs LHP (raw OPS of 953).

    Texas's other catcher, Yorvit Torrealba, has a OPS+ or 59 in 144 PAs this year and a WAR of 7.1 over 11 seasons (2495 PAs), with a 5.1 OWar and 2 DWar.

    Looking at all this, the answer is obvious: Napoli should be the regular starter at C. He absolutely should be out there vs lefthanders and I see little reason to have him out there vs righthanders. I'm willing to dismiss his positive DWar this year as either a fluke, a sample size issue, or both, and concede the point that he is a subpar defensive catcher. Yet, he has proven throughout his career to be a legitimate starting catcher in spite of this. And with no real other option at C, why would Texas not start him?

  5. BSK Says:

    Looking more specifically at John's question, I suppose discussing Torrealba may not have been appropriate. Assume I am running a random team, and have no idea as to the structure of the team, I see Napoli has tied for 7th in WAR among players who played at least 45% of their games at C. Again, that's a bit skewed potentially by his aberration DWar and the fact that he's played games at 1B and DH, but I think it is fair that Napoli is a legitimate starting catcher. Absent my team having a clearly superior option or a prospect at that position, Napoli would be my starting catcher. I don't have the list of all the catchers in front of me, but I'd be surprised if Napoli ended up in the bottom half of starting catchers in the league.

  6. John Autin Says:

    @2, Chuck -- Your point is true. But I think that for purposes of comparing career achievements, it's both simpler and more reasonable to attribute all the career value to the player's primary position. And there is a lot of precedent for that policy in these circles; for example, that's how Bill James handled it when creating his all-time top 100 at each position in the Historical Baseball Abstract.

    And remember that lots of catchers played a handful of games a year at other positions. Johnny Bench played about 20% of his career games at positions other than catcher. But when we want to compare catchers' offensive careers, I don't see that what is gained by parsing them by position is worth the trouble of doing so.

    Now, when a player makes a mid-career position change and winds up with a bare majority of games played at his "primary" position, then the discussion should note that. But for most players (and certainly catchers), that doesn't happen.

  7. GS Says:

    The Rangers should do what the Angles should have done years ago--make him their regular catcher and live with his defense. In many years if they had done this he would have hit 40 HRs, driven in 100 runs and drawn 80-100 walks--more than enough to compensate for a weak glove...

  8. GS Says:

    OK, checking now it's more like 35 HRs, 90 RBI and 75 walks--still more than good enough.

  9. John Autin Says:

    @7, GS -- I guess it was Napoli's bad luck to come up with a club managed by a long-time defensive catcher. If Scioscia did have a blind spot towards Napoli, it's understandable. If he had come up under, say, Joe Maddon, Napoli might be a regular All-Star by now.

  10. jojo Says:

    Mike P at the end of his career was EXTRA brutal when it came to throwing.....essentially, he couldn't reach second base unless it slipped out of his hand....then it could end up anywhere. I think he set a record for the most bases stolen against without throwing out a runner. Every single became a double. The pitchers also complained because he set up his target very early, and refused to change the habit......batters could sneak a peak at him to find pitch location, and still have plenty of time to set for the pitch, knowing he wasn't going to move. He blocked th plate very well, caught the ball well, and hustled after pop ups well. He claimed his throwing problems came from "small hands", but I think a lot of HS girls playing softball threw better than he did.

  11. The Legendary Frank King Says:

    @ 7 GS Washington will find a spot in the lineup for Napoli if he stays hot, be it at 1B, C or DH. And since there have been legitimate concerns about Torealba's pitch calling skills recently, I think Mike will see more and more time behind the plate this season.

    And isn't this the 3rd blog entry about Napoli in the last 10 days? I remember one recently about him slugging over .500 but having BA under .200.

  12. John Autin Says:

    @11, TLFK -- You have an excellent memory. But Andy's May 22 post, "Very productive despite batting under .200," barely mentioned Napoli; so if there's an overemphasis on him, it's all on me.

    Your suggestions for blog topics are always welcome.

  13. The Legendary Frank King Says:

    @12, John - Hey, when you're hot you're hot. Mike deserves the press right now. And I'm enjoying the increased TEX production no matter where it's coming from (I'm looking at YOU Murphy!)

    As far as Blog topics go... My wife actually asked the other day, "Is there such a thing as catcher ERA?" While it may not be trackable, I think there should be an equivalent for catchers who call their own games. Is there?

  14. John Autin Says:

    @13, Frank -- Catcher ERA (CERA) is definitely tracked, though I don't think any distinction is made based on whether they call their own game or not. B-R runs catcher ERA under Advanced Fielding; here's Mike Piazza's fielding page, scroll down to Advanced Fielding:

    ESPN runs CERA as part of their standard defensive stats for catchers; see the right-most column here:

    But beware of noise in this data. It's very hard to compare apples to apples; even catchers on the same team often don't have much overlap in the starting pitchers they catch for. For many years with Atlanta, Greg Maddux preferred any other catcher over Javy Lopez, so the #2 catcher had a leg up on Javy in the CERA race.

    Furthermore, there's no consensus yet on whether the data are meaningful at all. According to Wikipedia, "Baseball Prospectus writer Keith Woolner found through statistical analysis of catcher performance that 'catcher game-calling isn't a statistically significant skill,'" while Bill James found that "there is too much yearly variation in CERA for it to be a reliable indicator of ability."'s_ERA

  15. Bobby G Says:

    The list is a tribute to Johnny Bench, who was just a kid during this portion of his career. Only Campanella was in his league defensively, and he was nearly 7 years older. And don't forget that in the 70s, 25-30 HR in a year was a major accomplishment.

  16. John Autin Says:

    @15, Bobby G. -- Haven't we returned to the point where 25-30 HRs is a major accomplishment? Compare 1970 and 2010:

    # of players hitting 25+ HRs, avg. per MLB team:
    1970 -- 1.46 (35 players, 24 teams)
    2010 -- 1.47 (44 players, 30 teams)

    # of players hitting 35+ HRs, avg. per MLB team:
    1970 -- 0.46 (11 players, 24 teams)
    2010 -- 0.20 (6 players, 30 teams)

    HRs as a % of AB:
    1970 -- 2.30%
    2010 -- 2.49%

  17. John Says:

    "f you put them at 1B or DH, their offensive edge at the position takes a big hit; a 120 OPS+ is only average for a 1B."

    Y'see, this is why I come to bbref. I spent way too much time explaining to Red Sox fans this offseason that the Tigers overpaid for Victor Martinez, because I (and others: I'm not an original thinker) believed that Victor would be this exact sort of player by the end of that contract: a catcher whose catching skills are such that they have to stash him at an easier position, at which point his great offense is only going to be okay, not an enormous asset. VMart's career OPS+ is "only" 122. A nice bat... but eight figures as an okay first baseman / designated hitter? I'll pass.

    Of course, he's not even catching THIS year, in the first year of the contract, thanks to Avila.

  18. JohnBoy Says:

    Footnote on Napoli: I watched this guy play for a couple years in the California League with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. In one game, while striking out 3 times, he lost his bat into the stands during all three ABs. The 3rd base crowd was fortunate not to suffer any injuries from his hurtling piece of lumber and they were smart (and comic) enough to rise en masse and move away during the third AB. His 4th AB was a monstrous homerun - the kind that wrote his ticket to the majors. Aside from his crowd-clearing swings, he was a fan favorite; interacting freely and never refusing an autograph to kids. After breaking a bat, he returned to the dugout and offered the cracked momento to my daughter to whom he has always remained a favorite. Yes, this is off-subject, but hopefully an interesting human interest perspective on this homerun machine.

  19. John Autin Says:

    @18, JohnBoy -- Thanks for the story.

    I remember checking out Napoli's minor-league stats when he came up in May 2006 and had an OPS around 1.000 through the All-Star break. I noticed that he had led his class-A and AA leagues in both HRs and RBI in 2004-05, while also drawing lots of walks. Also, at AA in 2005, he threw out 47% of attempted base-stealers (61 of 127). I drafted him on my fantasy team the last couple of years that I did that stuff, and was bummed when he didn't get more playing time; it was obvious that Scioscia didn't like him. Not only were there defensive question marks, but Napoli was the exact opposite of Scioscia as a hitter -- high power, low BA, lots of Ks.

  20. JohnBoy Says:

    John A-

    Perhaps Scioscia had a family member in the Cucamonga stands that day?

  21. SocraticGadfly Says:

    Could Napoli also be taught the hot corner, to spell Beltre? Of course, that shoves Mike Young even further out of the "super-utility infielder" position.

  22. The Legendary Frank King Says:

    @ #21, Texas is kind of stocked at 3B right now. Though none of those AAA/AA bats behind Beltre are quite major league ready. The Major League depth chart reads Beltre, Young, Blanco. Behind those I believe sits Chris Davis who has been bringing his bat along slowly over the past season and a half. This is not even getting into the guys sitting in the minors. Unless Beltre takes another one to the groin, Wash really wants him to earn that money with perfect attendance over at 3rd. And besides, I think Napoli is on a 1 year contract (?) so somebody will likely lose their mind over him in the off season.

    @ #14, John, Thanks for the info and the caution. I got the feeling it was more of a novelty stat than something concrete. I know some starters have "their guy" but I'm not looking for an across the board/through the years comparison... It's more of a C.J. Wilson-Colby Lewis-Derek Holland-Alexi Ogando-Matt Harrison thing for me. I'm getting the feeling Torrealba for all his supposed defense is calling a worse game than Napoli.

  23. Yanks climb to No. 1 spot in Power Rankings | Sports Says:

    [...] Napoli is in some rarefied company when it comes to power from the catcher position. As noted in this blog post, Napoli’s two-home run game Monday pushed him within 0.01 percent of Mike Piazza for the best [...]