Mike Napoli: More K’s, Smaller BABIP

Owners who hopped aboard the Mike Napoli bandwagon in 2011 (and stayed on it through injury) were handsomely rewarded with excellent value from a traditionally weak position in fantasy. 2012 drafts saw this value reflected in his pre-season rankings, and Texas’ offensive backstop slash first-baseman hybrid was coming off the board first among catchers and 44th overall (at least, in ESPN drafts). And owners who paid the high price for Napoli’s Arlington talent were correspondingly not shocked to see him slip all the way to 13th in Zach Sanders’ End of Season Catcher Rankings – most of them probably grumbling about burning a fourth-rounder or double-digit auction dollars on a guy who saw practically everything drop across the board from 2011 to 2012. Runs down from 72 to 53, runs batted in dropping similarly to 56 from 75, average crashing from 0.320 to 0.227 and even Napoli’s taters tailing off from 30 to 24 in only 15 less plate appearances. An all-around down year.

So what made Napoli’s 2012 so different from his 2011? Rate stats tell some of the story. His BB% seemed right in line with where it’s been the last couple of years, and he maintained a lot of the gains in that department he first exhibited when moving to Arlington full-time in 2011 (up ~4% since leaving Anaheim). His K%, on the other hand, spiked to 30% after sitting at a much more palatable 19.7% in 2011. This is still closer to his seven-season average (25.4%) but represents a disappointing regression after a career-low whiff rate last year. If we look at Napoli’s plate discipline numbers (I chose BIS, but the same trends hold true for the PitchF/X data which – for those who don’t know – can be found on Napoli’s player page here and here), we see that his O-Swing% and Z-Swing% have barely moved the last couple of years, which tell us that there has been no dramatic shift in the type of pitches (both in and out of the strike zone) that he is swinging (or not swinging) at. That’s good. However, his Contact% was down a few percentage points in 2012 (to 71.0% from 74.5% in 2011) and his SwStr% climbed 1.4%. When coupled together, it’s obvious that Napoli’s strike zone judgement is not the driving factor in his elevated strikeout rate, but rather, when swinging, he is making contact at worse rates than he historically been able to.

An area where Napoli really hurt fantasy owners was batting average. With a career clip of 0.259, no one ever claimed Napoli was a hitting title contendor, but his 0.320 figure in 2011 led to optimism that he could settle somewhere in the 0.280-0.290 range when his BABIP (0.344 in 2011) slid back down to Earth a bit. Napoli’s BABIP did indeed slide back down the Earth – although it kept going and apparently found some mythical hole to China (you know, the one that everyone is always talking about) as it went right past ground level and into some sort of dark abyss. Maybe a touch of hyperbole there, but the BABIP he put up in 2012 (0.273) was actually the lowest he has put up in any of his seven big league seasons. Interestingly, Napoli’s batted ball profiles are almost as perfectly correlated over the last two seasons as any player you’ll ever see – no one component of his LD/GB/FB slash changed by more than one half of one percent and his HR/FB% ratio remained essentially unchanged (+0.1% in 2012). The good news here for forward-thinking owners is that this breakdown puts Napoli’s xBABIP at 0.310, which makes him one of the unluckier full-time ballplayers this past season.

Another annoyance for owners: 2012 was the year of the backwards split. Napoli has traditionally been known as a lefty-masher, sporting a career 0.390/0.364 wOBA versus LHP/RHP split. Owners with daily lineup moves have traditionally reaped immense benefits platooning him in roto leagues over the last three seasons as he had put up slugging numbers of 0.606, 0.567, 0.619 against southpaws from 2009-2011. This year was a different story, however, as Napoli’s vs. LHP slugging plunged to 0.411 and his 0.372/0.299 wOBA ended up being a reverse platoon split (i.e., he hit righties better than lefties). Teasing out the batted ball breakdown further, he did have a 4% LD% deficiency from the right side relative to the left batter’s box, but his HR/FB% rate was roughly the same regardless of handedness. Using similar analysis to above, Napoli’s BABIP against LHP was only 0.185, while his xBABIP (admittedly using last year’s weights since I haven’t updated my spreadsheet yet) was ~0.300 (very close to the aggregate number above). Not only was Napoli unlucky on balls in play, but he was most unlucky from his best side of the plate. Double whammy.

Now a free agent, it doesn’t take Josh Beckett’s wife (rocket scientist) to figure that Napoli’s value is going to depend on where he ends up. Presuming he does leave the friendly confines of Arlington, he’ll be leaving baseball’s number one run-scoring offense behind, but he’ll also likely have the opportunity to hit higher in the lineup more frequently (he only batted higher than sixth twice in 2012) which should lead to a boost in runs and runs batted in. Napoli played enough catcher in 2012 to maintain eligibility there, but it will be crucial for owners in keeper and dynasty leagues to keep an eye on how time behind the dish he gets with his new squad if you’re counting on him as an anchor for the next few years. Regardless, assuming he ends up in a quasi-decent (read: not Petco) offensive environment, his bad luck in the batted balls department should help offset leaving the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex behind, leaving him as a likely undervalued asset in 2013. Assuming his contact rates (and correspondingly  his K% – the only real serious negative for him in 2012) level off and don’t continue to fall, he’s a good target in drafts next spring – although that’s little comfort to the owners he burned in 2012.

We hoped you liked reading Mike Napoli: More K’s, Smaller BABIP by Colin Zarzycki!

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There are few things Colin loves more in life than a pitcher with a single-digit BB%. Find him on Twitter @soxczar.

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Any chance the Blue Jays could sign him to be a 1B?