Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE
Mike Napoli followed up his monster 2011 season by crushing the hopes of fantasy owners with a mediocre 2012. While many fans hope he can climb back to fantasy stardom again, the evidence suggests he's probably going to be marginalized by the strikeouts and low batting average.
Mike Napoli's 2011 season vaulted him into the conversation as the best catcher in fantasy baseball and served as a sort of vindication for his most rabid fans. Chiefly among said rabid supporters was one Paul Rice. I have been following Napoli's career closely since he broke into the majors in 2006, as I have a weird fascination with power hitting catchers and a doubly weird fascination with Three True Outcomes players. I scooped up Napoli in a keeper league in his rookie season and continued to follow him even after I foolishly traded him away for the decaying remains of Jorge Posada the following year.
Napoli, in my view, was an underrated source of power and walks at a position where offense was traditionally hard to come by. His monstrous 2011 year, in which he hit .320/.414/.631 in his first season with the Rangers, seemed to justify that conviction. Napoli's big year put him at the very top of more than one catcher fantasy ranking in the preseason. The warm air of Arlington seemed to be a perfect fit, and he looked primed to remain as one of the best, if not the best, power-hitting catchers in the league.
Then disaster struck. Napoli regressed substantially in 2012, morphing from a fantasy star to a fringe catcher who had to be micromanaged by owners to wring value. His average plummeted to a career-low .227, and with it went pretty much everything else. Just when we fantasy owners thought we had a star-level producer at a position that is generally tough to find hitters at, Napoli had to go and fall off a cliff. So is there hope for Napster to bounce back to his mashing ways? Was this a one year blip or was 2011 the real Napoli, here to stay?
To understand Napoli's down year, it helps to look at his career as a whole. Napoli came up in 2006 and looked poised to become a Three True Outcomes god, as he either struck out, homered, or walked in 48% of his plate appearances that year. The strikeout totals weren't too easy on the eyes of fantasy owners, but there was still the potential that Napoli could blossom into a guy who could hit 25 home runs a year and not completely murder his owners with all the whiffs.
Napoli took major strides toward accomplishing this goal in 2007, cutting his strikeouts drastically, but that was also the first season in which it became apparent that he probably wouldn't realize his full potential as long as he was with the Angels. Halos manager Mike Scoiscia, being a former catcher, was enamored, probably to a fault, with catcher defense, and never really took a shine to Napoli (Napoli's defense always seemed to be characterized as a work in progress). This led to Napoli being used in a time share throughout his Angels career with Jeff Mathis, a player who couldn't hit a white whale against a black background. Since Napoli could never seem to get a full season's worth of plate appearances, Scioscia's stubborn (and often comical) reliance on Mathis became a constant thorn in the side of Napoli's fantasy owners.
Napoli gave owners a taste of stardom in 2008 and 2009, when he hit a combined .273/.359/.527 over the two years, with 20 home runs in both seasons. Once again, though, that Scioscia-induced time share cut into his overall effectiveness, and a relatively poor year 2010 (.238/.316/.468) pretty much served as the eulogy to Napoli's Angels career. The Angels for some reason decided that they just had to have Vernon Wells and his gargantuan contract, so, fueled by Scioscia's distaste for Napoli's defense, the team traded the maligned catcher to the Blue Jays in one of the most lop-sided (and bafflingly stupid) trades of all time.
Napoli was subsequently swapped to the Rangers, of course, and the rest is history (the Angels, in case you were wondering, still have Wells and the .258 OBP he's put up over the past two years). He had a borderline-MVP year and came one David Freese double away from being a World Series hero. What was most impressive about Napoli's 2011 season was the drastic cut in his strikeouts. Throughout his career, Napoli had always struck out at a rate of about 25%, which somewhat diminished his value in leagues that included strikeouts as a category. In 2011, though, he slashed the whiffs to under 20%, and the resulting rise in batting average and extra base hits was astounding. That he was able to make better contact while simultaneously improving his walk rate (it rose from 8.9% to 13.4%) was just gravy on the star-studded dressing.
This past year, though, the evil strikeout monster returned, as Napoli struck out 125 times in 417 plate appearances (or 30%), a jaw-dropping decline from 2011. All those strikeouts drove his batting average into a ditch, and he dropped nearly 100 points to .227. He maintained his ability to draw free passes, but he didn't hit for the same power and basically turned into an Adam Dunn-like polarizing fantasy player: productive in a few categories, but murder in several others.
Being perhaps Napster's number one fanboy, I hate to be the bearer of bad news to hopeful fans. The 2012 Napoli was the (more or less) real guy. Just look closely at his 2011 year. Instead of a monster year, he had more of a monster three months. After coming back from an injury in July of that year, he went on a rampage, hitting .383/.466/.706 in the season's second half. That, of course, is completely out of line with anything he'd done, and pretty much out of line with anything anyone's ever done in the history of baseball outside of Barry Bonds. Napoli hit .232/.344/.529 in the first half of 2011, which, wouldn't you know it, perfectly jibes with his career norms.
2012 marked a regression to Napoli's old Three True Outcomes form, and just makes it ever clearer that the previous year was an aberration. We see this kind of thing every so often. Many TTO players have an outlier year where they strike out substantially less and have a career season because of it. Carlos Pena did this in 2007, when he struck out at a career-low rate and was an absolute beast, in no small part because he hit a career-high .282. His strikeouts shot up the next year, of course, and he's been a marginal-to-awful fantasy player ever since. For another very similar example from several decades ago, check out Dave Kingman's career and look at how his 1979 season differs from all the others.
Napoli is currently a free agent and his future as a fantasy producer partly hinges on where he lands this offseason. Rumor has him drawing interest from both the Yankees and Red Sox, but it's up in the air whether those teams (or any, for that matter) view him as a full-time catcher due to his defensive limitations. Napoli is a worthwhile fantasy own simply because of his power and ability to draw walks, and even though he's probably destined to split time as a catcher, his ability to play first base semi-competently guarantees that he'll get a good number of at-bats regardless.
However, the flawed fantasy player you saw last year is pretty much the real deal here, and we should have been skeptical about his 2012 year right from the start. Napoli's strikeouts and low average will continue to keep him outside of the inner circle of fantasy catchers, and it will likely only get worse now that he's past 30. Wherever he lands, Napoli will offer decent production and good power at the catcher position, but he's not a star, and I wouldn't even rate him in the top ten at his position at this point.