OK, I’ll admit, the vast majority of people who owned this player didn’t start him at first base. Yet here we are, talking about Mike Napoli as fantasy’s 16th best first baseman according to Zach Sanders’ FVAR rankings. 16th best is still startable. Maybe as a 1B in deeper leagues, or maybe as a corner infielder in your regular 10 or 12-teamer. Regardless, while that’s not where people played him this year, first base is where we have to start thinking Napoli going forward. Playing with avascular necrosis in both hips (also known as “the injury that ruined Bo Jackson“), Napoli doesn’t figure to squat behind the plate anymore. But it’s not all bad — every cloud has silver linings.
One advantage to no longer being a full-time (or even part-time) catcher? The sheer volume of playing time. Just ask Victor Martinez. By plate appearances, 2013 was Napoli’s top year so far. He stepped up to the dish an impressive 578 times; 68 more than his previous career high set with the Angels in 2010. Of course, the driving factor was that Boston’s bearded righty didn’t catch a game for the first time since he broke into the big leagues. But less wear on the tires means more chances for Napoli to help fantasy owners in any of the counting stat categories.
On the surface, Napoli’s peripherals held pretty true to form. His BB% trended down a hair while his K% did the opposite. The walk rate is well within his typical year-to-year variance, although the K% notched up for the third season in a row (he whiffed a career low 19.7% of the time in 2011). Owners in points leagues that penalize strikeouts were displeased.
Even though he’s posted an above-average career BABIP, this year’s mark sat at an impressive (and outlier) .367. Of course, given a 24% LD%, his .334 xBABIP wasn’t too far off the mark. We can’t just write that off as 100% “lucky.” Nothing in his plate discipline jumps out — he surprisingly remains outside of the top 15 SwStr% rates in the big leagues — but didn’t have a swing or contact rate change by more than a percentage point or two when compared to 2012. Same old Napoli.
While 2011’s .312 ISO appears to be his peak, his batted ball distance did rebound to 295 feet from a 2012 minimum. He fell from a league-wide fourth-best 309 feet in 2011 to 289 feet last season. Moral here? When he runs into a pitch, he can still hit a long way. Of course, one would think a near 300-foot fly ball distance would play up incredibly well with the Green Monster, but interestingly, Napoli actually hit more homers on the road (12 versus 11) as well as put up a better wOBA (.377 to .357). He has always been relatively park-independent (actually, a tad better on the road in his career), but it’s a surprising result given the conventional wisdom that Napoli would be too busy peppering Landsdowne Street with moonshots to worry about “road games.” Maybe there’s still profit to be had from the “Boston bump” for savvy owners next year, but those who reached a couple rounds in 2013 were likely a tad disappointed.
Not that it technically matters in fantasy (well, unless you are in some seriously insane league), but most objective fielding metrics liked Napoli’s defense. Small sample size caveats apply, but his +13.3 UZR/150 was actually the best among MLB first basemen. Those who follow fielding sabermetrics debates realize that putting tons of stock into single-season UZRs is probably not the best of ideas, but this does hint Napoli is more than adequate to continue playing the field for his next team. For example, if he were relegated to DH-mostly, spot-1B duty, you’d obviously run the risk of him being platooned with another no-field, all-hit lefty. However, if he keeps playing an above-average corner, health is the only thing stopping him from getting to 600+ plate appearances next season.
Where he is playing next season remains to be seen. Boston has said they would like to have Napoli back, and it sounds like the feeling is mutual. However, given the saga surrounding Napoli’s hip this offseason, one wonders if another GM will throw caution to the wind when it comes to negotiating a potential long-term deal for the soon-to-be 32-year-old. Either way, his stock is due to plummet in fantasy drafts next spring — not because Napoli did anything different — but because he won’t be C-eligible for the first time in his career. Unfortunately, that leaves him as a top-15 option instead of a top-5 one (bummer for keeper/dynasty league owners). That said, there’s still profit to be made if he slips, especially if you could use some extra homers from a corner infield slot you were going to give to a guy like an over-slotted Billy Butler.
There are few things Colin loves more in life than a pitcher with a single-digit BB%. Find him on Twitter @soxczar.