Friday, March 07, 2014

Expect Mike Napoli's numbers to dip

Mike Napoli was just one of the many things that went really right for the Boston Red Sox last season. A catcher for most of his career, Napoli moved to first base and surprised everyone with just how good he was over there. He also had a highly successful year at the plate. The bottom line was that Mike Napoli was the third best first baseman in the American League last season. Do not expect a repeat.
That seems like a weird statement in respect to the fact that his batting average and on-base percentage were nearly exact to his career average and his slugging percentage was twenty points lower than his career average. In light of those statistics, you would think his slugging would bounce back and after more than 3,200 plate appearances, his average and OBP would be good baselines.
But several things are troubling about making that leap. First was his strikeout rate. If you were told that of Mike Napoli, Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds, Napoli had the highest strikeout rate of the three, would you believe it? Well, it's true. Napoli struck out 187 times in 578 plate appearances, or 32.4% of the time. This is the second straight season where he has struck out 30% of the time or more, so it is a definite trend.
Napoli has very good plate discipline and that kind of discipline does not regress quickly. So the best way to look at what is happening at the plate is to look at his contact percentage inside the strike zone.
After two straight seasons with a contact percentage in the strike zone of 78.7% in 2010 and 2011, that number dipped to 74.7% in 2012 and then down again to 72.4% in 2013. The four projections looked at for this piece do not expect the trend to continue to plummet but most predict a strikeout rate of at least 30% and that makes a lot of sense.
When your strikeout rate is that high, you better be highly efficient with your batted balls because you will have so much less of them than most players. In order to maintain a batting average of .250 or higher with those kinds of whiff rates, batted balls are everything.
That said, Mike Napoli had a very good time with his batted balls in 2013. His BABIP of .367 was easily the highest of his career and 57 points over his career average. Perhaps some of it is legit though. Napoli hit more line drives in 2013 than at any time of his career--by a lot!
In 2013, Mike Napoli's line drive percentage was 24.4%. It was the first time in his career that he was over 20%. His career average (dragged up with last year's numbers) is only 19.4%. So how do you explain the sudden surge of line drives? Was it playing first instead of catching and not being all beat up? Was it some new-found batting skill from better study or mechanics? Perhaps.
Or perhaps it was a fluke. Line drives, as mentioned in this space a million times, are gold to a batter. Nothing besides a ball going over the fence has more of a chance of being successful than a line drive. Lots of line drives will usually lead to a above average BABIP like Napoli experienced in 2013.
Napoli could repeat this new-found success. But the odds seem to be against it based on his career norms. And even with all those line drives and his very high BABIP, because of the strikeouts, he still batted only .259. With his walk percentage being terrific, any batting average for him of .245 or higher will lead to a very good on-base percentage. But if his line drive percentage goes back to norms, the strikeouts stay high, then his batting average will dip by twenty points or more with a more normalized BABIP.
Do not expect his slugging percentage to improve back to his career level of .502 either. Napoli's ISO has been dependent on where he has played most of his home games. It was in the .220 range with the Angels, much higher with the Rangers and then back to the Angels level with the Red Sox where Fenway Park is not the best place for lefty swingers to hit homers.
The projections for Mike Napoli look right. They are pessimistic compared to 2013. They do not expect his offense to be as good (or as valuable) and they expect his defense to decline. While the latter conclusion is suspect as he has become a very good first baseman, even these projections might be too optimistic for Napoli. The expectation here is for his OPS to drop from .842 in 2013 to the .780 to .800 range.

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