See Naples and die.
That famous line may have been coined by Goethe to express the opulence of 18th-century Naples -- Napoli -- but it's acquired another meaning this year for AL pitchers, who may wonder if Mike Napoli has struck a Faustian bargain.
With 4 HRs in the last 2 games to cap a spectacular 2nd half, Napoli helped Texas clinch the #2 seed and became the first 30-HR backstop since 2003. Napoli has always had power and patience, but his 2011 line -- .320 BA, 1.046 OPS -- was far above his previous career level (.251/.831).
It was no Texas mirage. He did hit well at home, but unlike a lot of Rangers mashers, Napoli did his best work on the road, with 17 of his 30 HRs away from Arlington and a BA 25 pts. higher. And he wasn't a platoon hero; his splits were virtually the same against righties and lefties, and he played more than twice as much against RHPs. No, it was just an out-of-the-blue great season.
Napoli fell 70 PAs shy of qualifying for the batting title, but his 1.046 OPS ranked 2nd among all players with at least 300 PAs, and his 171 OPS+ was 3rd, tied with Matt Kemp. His OPS and OPS+ were the 3rd-best ever by a catcher in at least 300 PAs:
He led MLB in HR% at 6.9% of PAs (min. 15 HRs), the 5th-best HR% ever by a catcher. And he wasn't padding his numbers in blowouts; he slugged .709 in high-leverage situations, had a 1.301 OPS with 2 out & RISP, and led all catchers in Situational Wins Added. In his 60 games caught, Napoli hit .364/1.142. Yikes!
Napoli wasn't the best player in the league, obviously, but he might have produced the greatest value over expectation. His 5.5 WAR (tops among all catchers) was more than twice his career average; his prior reputation was reflected in how he was cheaply passed along from the Angels to the Jays to the Rangers last offseason. He started just 39 of the first 86 games (22 starts at C), batting .226/.851; Texas went 45-41 to that point and were lucky to be tied for the division lead.
But with Napoli starting 63 of the last 76 games (mainly behind the plate) and hitting .375/1.162, the Rangers went 51-25 to finish 10 games up in the division, with a franchise-record 96 wins. In September, as they fought off the Angels' challenge by going 19-6, Napoli had a 1.361 OPS with 8 HRs and 19 RBI in 21 games. Overall, Texas was 67-35 in games Napoli started, a 106-win pace per 162 games; otherwise, they went 29-31.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was his solid defensive play. His 36% CS rate was a career best and ranked 4th among AL catchers, and he scored his first positive defensive WAR. Napoli logged almost as many innings behind the plate as original #1 catcher Yorvit Torrealba and posted far superior numbers: passed balls, 1 to 7; wild pitches, 14 to 25; SB per 9 innings, 0.25 to 0.61. It may be that Torrealba handled the more challenging pitchers, but clearly Napoli is pulling his weight back there.
Napoli was born on Halloween in 1981, three days after George Steinbrenner apologized for losing the World Series. He and former Ranger Oddibe McDowell are the only significant big-leaguers to come from the confusingly named Hollywood, FL, a coastal city of about 140,000 between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. He's been in 4 prior postseason series, but has neither played much (36 PAs in 14 games, thanks to Mike Scioscia's preference) nor hit much, with a .194 BA and .725 OPS. But he's one of six catchers ever to hit 2 HRs in a postseason game, helping the Angels snap a record 11-game playoff losing streak to Boston, and joining Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Gary Carter, Gene Tenace and A.J. Pierzynski in the multi-HR feat.
Napoli ended the regular season with the only back-to-back multi-HR games in MLB this year. He's set to catch and bat 6th this afternoon, as the Rangers open their AL title defense against Matt Moore and the Tampa Bay Rays (see Andy's thread on the choice of Moore to start game 1). No one's had 3 straight multi-HR games since 2003 (Jeff DaVanon); only 18 players ever had more than 1 multi-HR postseason game. It should be a great show.
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