Saturday, November 9, 2013
Half-full, half-empty: Mike Napoli
By David Schoenfield
Last offseason, the Boston Red Sox had agreed to a three-year, $39 million contract with catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli, but a physical revealed a degenerative hip condition and the two sides eventually settled on a one-year deal. That contract worked out well: Napoli hit .259/.360/.482 with 23 home runs and 92 RBIs while playing in 139 games, and the Red Sox won the World Series.
So, Napoli enters the free-agent market again at age 32, coming off a better season than 2012, showing not only that his hip can withstand an entire season but also that he's a surprisingly good defender at first base. The Red Sox reportedly want him back, but other teams will be in pursuit.
Napoli is one of the most consistent power hitters in the game, one of just 11 players with 20-plus home runs in each of the past six seasons. His batting averages fluctuate, but his ability to draw walks means he's going to give you an on-base percentage well above the league average. Although he no longer should be considered a catcher, his defense at first base was impressive, with plus-10 defensive runs saved, best among American League first basemen and fourth in the majors.
Although Napoli is viewed as a guy who mashes left-handed pitching, his platoon splits aren't actually that severe. In his career, he has a .908 OPS against left-handers, .840 against right-handers; in 2013, that split was .899 and .813. He crushes lefties and mashes righties and was worth 4.1 WAR in 2013.
For teams looking to sign Napoli to a three-year deal, what should they expect? One similar type of player was Jim Thome -- he was better than Napoli but, like Napoli, a "three true outcomes" kind of hitter -- walks, strikeouts and home runs. From 29 to 31, Thome averaged 5.9 WAR per season; from 32 to 34, he averaged 2.7, but that included one 54-game season because of injury. At 35, he had 4.9 WAR, so the average of his 32, 33 and 35 seasons was 4.3 WAR; he retained about 72 percent of his value. Napoli has averaged 3.7 WAR the past three seasons, so 72 percent of that is a 2.7 WAR player. That would be worth about $52 million on a three-year deal, making a three-year, $39 million deal a pretty safe investment.
Paul Konerko is another best-case scenario, a right-handed hitting first baseman who hit .259/.351/.490 at age 31, a near-identical match for Napoli's 2013. Konerko averaged 2.5 WAR from 32 to 34 (with his fielding evaluated as worse than Napoli's).
You're not getting an MVP candidate or anything in Napoli, but you are getting a middle-of-the-order bat who is going to pop home runs, get on base, play better defense than expected and even serve as an emergency catcher if needed. For three or four years, he won't break your payroll.
A slow first baseman with a questionable health history entering his age-32 season and coming off a career-high strikeout rate? That sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Indeed, hidden in Napoli's superb 2013 season were some red flags. He struck out 187 times with a strikeout rate of 32.4 percent that was well above his career rate of 26.6 percent (when he had his monster 2011 season with the Rangers, he struck out less than 20 percent of the time). Napoli's BABIP was .367, despite which he hit just .259. His career BABIP is .310, so expect some regression in that area; if his strikeout rate remains high, his batting average could plummet back to the .227 he hit in 2012.
There are many more worst-case scenarios here than positive comps. You want a first baseman in his early 30s with health issues? I give you Mo Vaughn. A 31-year-old first baseman with power who strikes out excessively? How about Richie Sexson? He hit .264/.338/.504 with 34 home runs at age 31; he was out of baseball two years later. Or Carlos Pena, the AL home run leader at age 31 with 39: His strikeout and walk rates that year were both better than Napoli's 2013 figures, but, from 32 to 34, he hit .206 and was worth 1.7 WAR per season. Or Ryan Howard: He hit .253/.346/.488 at age 31 in 2011. What has he done the past two seasons?
Napoli has a skill set you like: power and walks. But he's the type of player who doesn't age well. Throw in his hip condition and he seems like a risky bet.