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‘Vedi Napoli e poi muori’

Posted by John Autin on September 30, 2011

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:

1 Mike Piazza 185 633 1997 28 LAD NL 152 556 104 201 32 1 40 124 69 11 77 3 0 5 19 5 1 .362 .431 .638 1.070 *2/D
2 Mike Piazza 172 475 1995 26 LAD NL 112 434 82 150 17 0 32 93 39 10 80 1 0 1 10 1 0 .346 .400 .606 1.006 *2
3 Mike Napoli 171 432 2011 29 TEX AL 113 369 72 118 25 0 30 75 58 2 85 3 0 2 10 4 2 .320 .414 .631 1.046 *23D
4 Jack Clements 171 355 1895 30 PHI NL 88 322 64 127 27 2 13 75 22 0 7 8 3 0 0 3 0 .394 .446 .612 1.058 *2
5 Joe Mauer 170 606 2009 26 MIN AL 138 523 94 191 30 1 28 96 76 14 63 2 0 5 13 4 1 .365 .444 .587 1.031 *2D
6 Javy Lopez 169 495 2003 32 ATL NL 129 457 89 150 29 3 43 109 33 5 90 4 0 1 10 0 1 .328 .378 .687 1.065 *2/D
7 Mike Piazza 166 631 1996 27 LAD NL 148 547 87 184 16 0 36 105 81 21 93 1 0 2 21 0 3 .336 .422 .563 .985 *2
8 Johnny Bench 166 652 1972 24 CIN NL 147 538 87 145 22 2 40 125 100 23 84 2 0 12 18 6 6 .270 .379 .541 .920 *29/35
9 Art Wilson 166 351 1915 29 CHI FL 96 269 44 82 11 2 7 31 65 0 38 1 16 0 0 8 0 .305 .442 .439 .880 *2
10 Mike Grady 166 363 1904 34 STL NL 101 323 44 101 15 11 5 43 31 0 42 2 7 0 0 6 0 .313 .376 .474 .850 *23/45
11 Bill Salkeld 163 317 1945 28 PIT NL 95 267 45 83 16 1 15 52 50 0 16 0 0 0 8 2 0 .311 .420 .547 .966 *2
12 Chris Hoiles 162 503 1993 28 BAL AL 126 419 80 130 28 0 29 82 69 4 94 9 3 3 10 1 1 .310 .416 .585 1.001 *2/D
13 Carlton Fisk 162 514 1972 24 BOS AL 131 457 74 134 28 9 22 61 52 6 83 4 1 0 11 5 2 .293 .370 .538 .909 *2
14 Ernie Lombardi 162 347 1942 34 BSN NL 105 309 32 102 14 0 11 46 37 0 12 1 0 0 17 1 0 .330 .403 .482 .886 *2
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/30/2011.

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.

21 Responses to “‘Vedi Napoli e poi muori’”

  1. Zachary Says:

    I always wondered why Naps didn't get more playing time. Glad to see he had such a great year!

  2. The Original Jimbo Says:

    The Blue Jays aquired him in a trade during the off-season, and then pretty much just dumped him off to the Rangers for free. I didn't get it. I was excited when we got him, and then they just gave him away....

  3. Cameron Says:

    If he had qualified for the batting title he would be a serious MVP contender, considering his position and defense. Will be interesting to see if he DH's a significant number of games next year.

  4. Timothy P. Says:

    Faustian bargain? Wonder who approached Napoli? JA stop reading classic literature while you're suppose to be watching baseball.

  5. John Autin Says:

    Hey, Timothy -- I wasn't reading, I was watching Damn Yankees !

  6. Timothy P. Says:


  7. Johnny Twisto Says:

    Fabulous intro, JA. I suppose I'd appreciate it even more if I was familiar with the "famous" Goethe line.

    the first 30-HR backstop since 2003

    It should be pointed out that he hit only 19 HR as a catcher. I assume you mean 30 HR by a player who primarily caught (still impressive; I wouldn't have thought it had been 8 years since it last happened).

    I've tended to give Mike Scioscia some benefit of the doubt regarding his disbursement of playing time to Napoli, Jeff Mathis, etc. Overall I think he's proven himself as a very good manager, and he should know catcher defense. But to see Napoli hit *this* well (and to be sure, he hit well in Anaheim as well), while his defense, at least by the raw stats, appears to be at least adequate, I'll admit that this may just be Scioscia's blind spot.

  8. Cheese Says:

    Well JA, Tampa ain't dead yet 😉

  9. Thomas Court Says:

    Napoli won my fantasy league for me. Early in the season, my friend refused a "Napoli for Mauer" trade because I would not throw in an extra player. At the time, I thought I was selling high on Napoli, and that Mauer would rebound. My friend did me a huge favor... and finished second.

  10. John Autin Says:

    @8, Cheese@9, Thomas Court -- Ironically, Napoli helped sink my fantasy team in his rookie year, which was the last year I did fantasy baseball. We had an unconventional league that we'd run on our own for about 20 years; we used OBP instead of BA, and some other little differences. We didn't have waiver pickups, but that year we adopted an All-Star Break mini-draft, and I think I had the 2nd pick.

    Napoli had been called up in early May, and by the Break he had a .412 OBP and 11 HRs in 140 ABs, after averaging 30 HRs and a .383 OBP his previous 2 years in the minors. I jumped on him. He homered in his 2nd game after the Break, but then didn't have another RBI for a solid month; for the 2nd half, he hit .164 with a .303 OBP and 5 HRs.

    "Draft Napoli and die." 🙂

  11. John Autin Says:

    Whoops, I got my numbers wrong -- I'm up too late. My comment #10 was directed @9 Thomas Court. This is my reply to Cheese @8:

    Cheese -- I guess I must have called the Rays dead at some point, or you wouldn't have written that.

    What I recall most clearly, though, is mentioning on a couple of occasions how they were starting to gain ground in mid-month, but -- because I was rooting for them -- downplaying the chance that they could actually pull it off.

    To borrow a Bill James phrase: Before this month, we had a hundred-odd years of pennant races to base predictions on; now we have one more. I'm very happy about Tampa's comeback, but it's not going to change my opinion that it's extremely unlikely to overcome a 7-game deficit with 20 games to play, or a 4-game deficit with 12 to play -- especially if the chaser has 7 of their last 12 games against the best team in the league.

    But, yeah, if I buried them, I was wrong. Tampa ain't dead yet. I'm excited!

  12. Timothy P. Says:

    I have a saying, See Milwaukee, and want to die!

  13. Timothy P. Says:

    @11 JA - I don't know JA, when I was banging the drum for the great job the Ray have done you kind of poo-poo'd me like "ole Timmy he don't know nothing". Several times throughout the season ole Timmy praised what the Rays have done, you can look it up. I obviously pointed out the small payroll, but also what a great attitude the players have and especially Joe Maddon. I am familiar with the Tampa Bay area and St. Pete is the worst place for a ball park, I don't think that can be stressed enough. Half the population of the metro area lives in Pinnelas and Pasco county, and if you want to get to St. Pete you have to use highway 19 and it is a total mess. It's easier to get to the ball park from Tampa than it is from Clearwater or Palm Harbor. It's been 20 years since I've been down there, but I remember them being huge sports fans down there, lot of transplant New Yorkers and Bostonians also. Good Cuban sandwiches and cheap cigars.

  14. Johnny Twisto Says:

    Timmy, you're suddenly trying to forge a history for yourself as a season-long Ray backer. And yet, "Before the season started I would have said no way this team reaches .500."

    Tamp it down a scotch there, brother.

  15. Timothy P. Says:

    You got me twisto, I knew I couldn't out smart (or out snark) you. And before the season started I would have said no way the Rays reach .500. As the season progressed there were probably about 4 or 5 posts by me praising what they've done, thanks for putting them up.

  16. Johnny Twisto Says:

    Yes, I concede, after the Rays proved they were still a good team, you acknowledged them as such.

  17. Timothy P. Says:

    Me in July about the RaysThey get off to a really bad start, and now they are 10 games over. There is a lot of talk about rating players here and new stats vs. old and all that, but whatever the Rays are doing they are doing it well!

  18. Timothy P. Says:

    Me on Oct 1st Several times throughout the season ole Timmy praised what the Rays have done, you can look it up. I obviously pointed out the small payroll, but also what a great attitude the players have and especially Joe Maddon. How am I trying to rewrite history?

  19. Timothy P. Says:

    Oh wait! I get it! Bill James works for the Red Sox, now I see why the mood on the board has been so sour. Bill James screwed up the Red Sox!

  20. Frankie Says:

    Where was this Napoli when he was on the angles?

  21. John Autin Says:

    @20, Frankie -- Certainly, 2011 is far better than anything he's done before.

    But for the previous 3 years, Napoli averaged 22 HRs (in just 405 PAs) and a 124 OPS+. If he had stayed on the Angels and just repeated that average, they probably win the division, considering the historically inept production of their 2011 catching corps.

    Scioscia has been a good manager for a long time and deserves a lot of credit for the Angels' long run as contenders. But his preference for Mathis (or just about anyone else) over Napoli is a clear mistake. Mathis is the worst-hitting regular catcher in about 40 years, with no tangible evidence of defensive excellence to make up for it.

    Just looking at 2010 ... Mathis and Napoli had about the same defensive innings behind the plate. Napoli had a better CS%, a lower rate of wild pitches and passed balls, made fewer errors and had more DPs. Yet it was always known that Scioscia didn't like Napoli.

    BTW, this wouldn't be the first time that a player has blossomed after joining a team that appreciates his positives instead of harping on his negatives.