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December 4, 2012
Boston, Napoli Married
Reportedly signed 1B-R Mike Napoli to a three-year, $39 million contract. [12/3]
[Jan. 17 edit: The terms of the deal were changed after Napoli's physical. The final agreement was for just one year and $5 million.]
Two and a half years ago, in August, the Angels put Mike Napoli on waivers like every team puts every player on waivers, and the Red Sox put in a claim. A trade would have made all sorts of sense: the Red Sox were likely to lose Victor Martinez to free agency and had otherwise relied on an about-to-retire Jason Varitek, Kevin Cash, Dusty Brown and Gustavo Molina to fill in the gaps. Gustavo Molina, incidentally, is not related to the Molinas, an incidental he’s probably not sick of hearing at all. Their top catching prospect, Ryan Lavarnway, ranked just 15th on Kevin Goldstein’s list and was described as “an offense-oriented catcher (who) still has work to do behind the plate.” They could have used a catcher like Napoli, even one who catches like Napoli. The Angels, meanwhile, were looking at Napoli’s arbitration status and not altogether sure they wanted that sort of salary commitment on the books, especially with Kendrys Morales expected back at first base.
A deal couldn’t be worked out—the Red Sox apparently didn’t have anything as attractive as Vernon Wells + All The Debt In The World to offer—and Napoli finished the season with the Angels. Two years later, the Red Sox finally got their man, but of course nothing remains in stasis for two years. Mike Napoli is different now. The Red Sox are different now. You’re different now. Here’s what has changed in two and a half years.
Mike Napoli got ridiculously good and then went back to normal.
In 2012, Napoli did a lot of things like he did in 2011. He had the same high walk rate, the same HR/FB rate, and an isolated power that was in his line with his career mark. He still hit better on the road than at home, surprisingly; he still hit better against righties than lefties, surprisingly. But he did not have a career-high BABIP, and his strikeouts came back hard. His batting average dropped by nearly 100 points. He was still a good hitter for a catcher, but slightly worse than the average first baseman and only ever-so-slightly better than the average designated hitter.
The optimistic way of looking at this is that a) much of the production was similar to his peak production and b) he still hit fastballs. This requires a bit of jumping to conclusions, but if a player is doing terribly against fastballs I jump to the conclusion that he’s being affected by age and his bat is slower. If a player is doing terribly against other pitches, but still hitting fastballs, I jump to the conclusion that he just wasn’t hitting very well. A player who isn’t hitting very well might still hit better; a player who is old will never get younger.
Of the 1,174 fastballs that Napoli saw in 2012, he whiffed 106 times—9.0 percent. Of the 1,444 fastballs he saw in 2011, he whiffed 133 times—9.2 percent. On the other pitches, meanwhile—curves, sliders, changeups, splitters—his whiff rate went from 12.3 percent in 2011 to 17.4 percent in 2012. (Cutters, which are included here in the fastball category, showed a swing-and-miss spike this year, too. Cutters vary so much from pitcher to pitcher that I could see an argument from including them with the fastballs, or including them with the non-fastballs, or making them a separate category.)
So if those non-fastball whiffs mean that Napoli isn’t hitting as well as he did in 2011, well, of course he didn’t hit as well as he did in 2011. He never had before, and he probably never will; Napoli essentially bunched all his best weeks into a single amazing season that made us all rethink what he could do, but he’s probably not a radically different hitter than he always was. He's not actively trending downward, is what I mean. So what we learned about Napoli in the past two seasons is:
The Red Sox got catchers.
The twist is that it’s David Ross, the backup catcher Boston just signed for two years and $6.2 million. There’s obviously daylight between them, particularly in the power (and almost totally because of 2011). And Ross faced a lot fewer right-handers than Napoli. And Ross didn’t have to play every day. But Ross is also a much better defender, an excellent thrower and framer compared to Napoli’s below-average skills at each.
I bring this up only because Napoli has been a de facto backup catcher for the past few years, starting just 60 games or so behind the plate each season. But, in Ross, the Red Sox arguably have a better backup catcher than Napoli right now, and so Napoli will be a first baseman. He’ll be a first baseman with a bat that is certainly good enough for first base, but—excepting that one season —isn’t special at first base.
When a player moves down the positional spectrum, he either improves his defense (relative to his peers at the position) or he loses value. Napoli is not a good defensive catcher. In three partial seasons at first base, Napoli doesn’t appear to be a good defensive first baseman. All else staying the same, simply changing positions knocks around a win off his expected WARP.
From Boston’s perspective, $13 million per year is a little bit steep for two wins, but it comes with two possible ways—he ends up proving useful as a catcher, or he hits like he did in 2011—for them to come out ahead.
There didn't used to be qualifying offers and now there are.
The question is whether either player would have seen his market dry up had he carried the burden of a qualifying offer. In Napoli's case, the simplest answer is no: the Red Sox' pick was protected because it was in the top 10 of the first round. In Hunter's case, perhaps. Perhaps the Tigers would have offered (making up a number here) only two years and $20 million if it meant losing a pick. Perhaps Hunter would have had a good read on this market and accepted the Angels' offer. Perhaps he would have anyway, just because, and perhaps Napoli would have, too. So far, though, it appears teams were a bit too conservative in making qualifying offers this offseason.
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Taylor freaking Swift. Crazy.