Commentary

Rangers' Mike Napoli takes a lead role

From plate production to pitching staff's development, catcher's fingerprints spread

Updated: March 2, 2012, 2:27 AM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It's Yu-mania at Texas Rangers spring training. And those fans and media not racing all over the back fields at Surprise Recreational Campus chasing after the Japanese star are watching Neftali Feliz work on his changeup or Josh Hamilton whack balls in batting practice.

[+] EnlargeMike Napoli, Yu Darvish
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelMike Napoli has made it a point to build a rapport with Yu Darvish early in Rangers spring training.
But don't let the buzz fool you. If the Rangers are to return to the World Series and win it this time, Mike Napoli's fingerprints will be all over the trophy.

It's not that Napoli doesn't have his share of admirers here in the desert. If you're quiet, you can still hear the "NAP-O-LI" chants from the World Series. And one guy, wearing a Napoli jersey, followed him from field to field through every drill the other day. But on the two-time defending American League champions, there's plenty of star power to take some of the attention away from a catcher.

That doesn't seem right just a few months removed from the Year of the Napoli, does it?

"That's the great thing about this team," Napoli said. "Everyone contributes."

True. But not everyone has his hands on so many facets of the team's fortunes.

Think about it. Napoli is charged with providing power and production in the lineup. He has to guide a young pitching staff through games. The 30-year-old must play solid defense, making it difficult on runners to advance. And he must be a leader in the clubhouse, helping keep teammates loose.

He should only grow as a leader now that he's firmly a member of the Rangers after a season in Texas -- and not with the rival Los Angeles Angels.

"I remember thinking how cocky he was when he was with Anaheim," Rangers starter Matt Harrison said. "But he's not that way. And he's a great all-around player. I'm glad he's here with us."

Do the Rangers get home-field advantage in the first round and, consequently, in the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers without Napoli's two-homer night in Anaheim? Do they create stretch-drive momentum if not for Napoli's torrid second half at the plate?

But that's only part of Napoli's role. What impressed Rangers manager Ron Washington the most was how Napoli navigated a relatively inexperienced staff through the rigors of the final few months of the season and the playoffs. Napoli's offense forced the skipper to keep him in the lineup, but his game-calling and calming influence helped make him the starting catcher for most of the postseason.

"He did so many things for us in every part of the game," Washington said. "He was a big difference-maker."

And he must be again. But let's be realistic: Napoli's chances of hitting .383 in either half of 2012 might be just slightly better than winning the lottery. Even the catcher concedes he isn't expecting that mark out of himself.

"I know I'm not likely to have a long streak like that ever again," Napoli said. "But I know I can be more consistent and still hit well. That's my goal."

Napoli's searing hot streak from the moment fireworks went off at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on July 4 through the end of the World Series gives him a difficult target to reach again in 2012. But Napoli chooses to take the year as a whole. He notes he struggled early and despite the huge second half still hit .320 overall.

"Why can't I do that again?" Napoli said. "I know that's high for me, but I also know I'm not a .220 hitter. Why can't I hit .290 consistently or bat over .300?"

[+] EnlargeMike Napoli
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesEven Mike Napoli concedes that he can't match his offensive streak of last year, but he's working on being more consistent.
Napoli said his work in the cages -- especially on his two-strike approach of choking up, shortening his swing and not being afraid to go the other way -- provides the perfect blueprint for 2012.

"But to be honest, my focus right now is on the pitching staff and getting everyone on the same page," Napoli said.

The catcher knows it's one of his most important jobs. He asked to catch Yu Darvish's first session to hitters this spring. He wanted to get an early look at Darvish's stuff and start to develop a line of communication with him. He caught him again Wednesday and was impressed with all seven of Darvish's pitches.

"I think knowing what your pitcher's best stuff is makes it easier to put them in situations where they get to use their best stuff and get outs with it," Napoli said.

"You might have a scouting report on a guy and it looks like he's made an adjustment and is getting to stuff that the report says he can't. You change what you're doing. Maybe a pitcher doesn't have a changeup that day, so you alter things."

Napoli works with his pitchers. He tells them what he thinks but is big on making sure the game plan is a collaboration, which starts with the work that pitching coach Mike Maddux and bullpen coach Andy Hawkins put in and continues with communication between the battery mates.

"I love working with the guy," Harrison said. "He's so easy to communicate with. He's not a guy that's going to embarrass you or say it's my way or the highway. He works with you and helps you."

Napoli says that communication is ongoing. It happens in the clubhouse prior to games and isn't just about his talks with pitchers.

"That was one thing about coming here was that Michael Young and the other guys talk baseball all the time," Napoli said. "They also have a set routine and really stick to it. I've started doing that, too."

But in between innings, Napoli will grab the pitcher and quickly review the previous inning and look ahead to the next one.

"Maybe we've been through this lineup and we haven't thrown a changeup, so we'll talk about mixing that in," Napoli said. "Or maybe these guys are leaning outside, so let's come inside. Maybe I say, 'Give me five good curve balls in warmups because that pitch doesn't seem to be working and let's see if we can get it going.' It's just about leading these guys."

Napoli does that well. He also proved in 2011 that he can play defense. He came to Texas and many had heard he wasn't as solid as he needed to be defensively. Napoli proved that assumption false last year, throwing runners out and blocking balls in impressive fashion.

"I'm excited," Napoli said. "I just want to be able to help any way I can. I know I had a great year last year, but I feel like I can be a good baseball player. It helps having all of these guys here that want to be the best. We talk all the time about how to get better, what a pitcher is doing and how we're going to attack him. We'll keep driving toward our goals."

The top one is getting back to the World Series and winning it. If 2012 is another Year of the Napoli, don't bet against the Rangers.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.

Richard Durrett joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He writes about colleges, the Dallas Stars and the Texas Rangers. Richard spent nine years at The Dallas Morning News covering the Rangers, Stars, colleges, motorsports and high schools.

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