You all know Mike; you know him well enough to be completely unsurprised and even pleased to find out that his middle name is Anthony. You also know that ever since he broke into the league as a catcher with the Angels—playing Off-Broadway Roy Hobbs to Mike Scoscia’s Pop and Jeff Mathis’s Bump—Napoli has been leaving jersey buttons unbuttoned and three true outcome-ing a high percentage of his at bats. While his average and counting stats have had significant year-to-year variance due to his injury proneness and large BABIP variance, the power, patience, and strikeouts have always remained constant. That is until 2014.
What Went Right in 2014
Most importantly, Napoli posted his second straight season with no reported injuries related to his degenerative hip condition. From a non-hip perspective, Napoli significantly increased his walk rate and decreased his strike out rate last season. When a hitter shows these two improvements, us fantasy owners are usually in for a treat. However, and astonishingly so, this is where the “What Went Right in 2014” ends for Napoli as his improved walk and strikeout rates did not result in improved or even sustained production.
What Went Wrong in 2014
Napoli’s injury proneness showed up for the first time as Red Sox and his first time since making the full-time switch from catcher to first base. Not only was Napoli limited to 500 at-bats last season, his slugging took a huge step down; he posted an ISO of .171 (his first sub-.220 mark in a season in which he received at least 300 at-bats). Additionally, his reduced power did not even come with one of his higher batting average seasons a la the Torii Hunter/J.J. Hardy fantasy aging curve.
So how did Napoli provide such reduced production while simultaneously showing the best approach of his career? In short, Napoli was able to lay off breaking and off speed pitches more frequently than any other time in his career, but he hit fewer fly balls than ever once he got the fastballs he was looking for (he also hit fewer fly balls on all other pitches, but the big drop was on the hard stuff). On top of that, Napoli did less damage with those fly balls, posting his lowest HR:FB rate since 2009, when he played most of his games in the power-reducing confines of Angel Stadium in Anaheim.
While a groundball is a below-average result for most hitters, a groundball was an especially poor result for Napoli in 2014. He was often playing at less than 100 percent due to injuries, he is not fast, he is not getting faster, and he is easily shifted. When we take a look at his ground-ball distribution (below) and combine that with (i) the MLB-wide increase in use of infield shifts, (ii) Boston’s lack of production out of the leadoff spot and two hole, and (iii) the base stealing threat the David Ortiz poses, we get a player who made his fair share of groundball outs last year.
Lastly, the Red Sox added Allen Craig, which would seemingly reduce Napoli’s playing time, even if only slightly, going forward.
What to Expect in 2015
Obviously, an older-ish player coming off a down year is going to make owners gun shy, but bounce backs happen regularly and often tend to be some of the best values. Luckily, we can do better than just generalized commentary as we have plenty of Napoli-specific data points. Most concerning is Napoli’s trouble with the fastball. If the decreased production on the hard stuff is all due to a slowed bat speed due to aging, then 2015 will not be pretty for Napoli. If the said decreased production is a result of injury (in whatever way), then there remains hope for a bounce back campaign. Given that Napoli has dealt with injuries before without seeing a season-long dip in his fly-ball rate, we are lead to believe that we are more likely to be witnessing Napoli’s bat slowing. Again, we cannot know with certainty, but Napoli’s inability to make an in-season adjustment, does not seem to bode well for 2015.
In total, and boringly so, I expect more of the same from Napoli in 2015, which makes him a fringe mixed league play and probably a $10-$12 value in AL only. The real issue I see with valuing Napoli for 2015 is that as power gets scarcer, it is easy to dream on his cheap power upside and therefore easy to overvalue that upside. Sure, there is still a chance that he regains 25-30 home run, plus batting average form, but that chance is probably much smaller than it appears at first blush.
The Great Beyond
As much as it pains me to say it, with Napoli being one of my favorite players in the league, we are now in the post-peak slugger portion of Napoli’s career. His fantasy production will ultimately be driven by (i) his health and (ii) how he adjusts to diminishing ability (important note: diminishing does not have to mean quickly diminishing). There will be some years where he gets so undervalued that he will be a bargain and others where the above two factors fail Napoli and his owners. As much as I would love to see Napoli prove me wrong, I am not going to be betting on it going forward without seeing a significant change in 2015.
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So assuming the surgery was a success and Napoli is finally sleeping well, might this be a factor that would suggest improved performance in 2015? I'll be keeping an eye on his spring.