When the Angels traded actual value(!) for the overwhelming bulk of Vernon Wells‘ contract(!), it didn’t look like there were very many ways by which the Angels could come away looking smart. There were more ways by which the Angels could come away feeling content, though, like if Wells performed well enough, even if not well enough to be worth his salary. These days the Angels appear neither smart nor content, although in fairness the front office has since turned over. What the Angels didn’t need was for Wells to suck. What the Angels really didn’t need on top of Wells sucking was for Mike Napoli to hit the crap out of the Angels.
Sunday, the Angels and the Rangers played a critical doubleheader. The Angels won the first game, and Mike Napoli went 0-for-1 as a pinch-hitter. The Angels lost the second game, by one run, and Napoli went 3-for-3 with a walk, a double, and two homers. The loss pushed the Angels one decision from playoff elimination, and Napoli’s big game capped off a big season against his former employer.
“He plays with a vengeance,” the Angels’ Torii Hunter said. “I hate that he’s doing it, but that’s how you really make a statement.”
Napoli was very good against the Angels in 2011; he was even better in 2012, and it’s 2012 that we’re going to examine going forward. The easy narrative is that Napoli elevates his game against the Angels to get back at them for undervaluing him and for trading him away. Players have said before that things can be a little different when you’re playing an old team, and, statistically, things have certainly been different for Napoli. Now, we refer to this as the “easy narrative” for a reason — easy narratives are usually incorrect, because real life usually doesn’t follow along with narratives. But it’s worth breaking down just how much better Napoli has been against the Angels in 2012 than against everybody else. What follows is a big giant table.
|NAPOLI||vs. Angels||vs. Others|
So it’s not that big or that giant, but there’s still a lot of information in there. Napoli batted 67 times against the Angels this season, and he’s batted 339 times against everyone else. Every single stat pair in there seems to be significantly different, even though I haven’t run the math. Some of them probably don’t meet the threshold for statistical significance. That can be a difficult threshold to achieve. Anyway.
What most people are aware of is the difference in the triple-slash-line stats. That’s where Napoli’s productivity shows up. Said Mike Scioscia, in the same article linked above:
“Mike has power, but he’s hitting .220,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “Against us, obviously, those numbers are off the charts.”
What I was curious about was the rest of the picture. Against the Angels, Napoli has spiked his walks and cut his strikeouts, such that he’s averaged about three strikeouts per walk against everyone else, and one strikeout per walk against the Angels. By Win Probability Added, you see a wild swing; Napoli has a negative WPA for the year, but obviously not all of his big hits against Anaheim have come in garbage time. Napoli’s hit far more balls in the air against the Angels, which is his strength, since he’s not going to do his damage on the ground. The Angels have thrown Napoli fewer pitches in the strike zone, possibly because they’re afraid of him and possibly because of something else, and Napoli’s discipline and contact have been better. I’m particularly interested in the last stat, myself. On average, Angels pitchers have worked more than two seconds slower against Napoli this season, maybe a function of caution or maybe a function of deeper counts. If it’s been caution, it hasn’t worked.
What we can say is that, in 2012, Mike Napoli was way better against the Angels than he was against the rest of baseball. What we can’t say is how much of this, if any of this, is sustainable. Probably almost none of it. By asserting that Napoli is extra locked in against the Angels, it follows that Napoli is therefore less locked in against everyone else, and why should we believe that? Still, we can choose to believe a player usually has X focus, and in certain instances he might have X + 2% focus. Consider your own personal driving habits. You’re probably always pretty focused when you’re driving, but you’re probably not always maximally focused. This is pure speculation on my part but it’s the only way to believe there’s anything to the Napoli-pounds-the-Angels idea.
But then, wait, there’s another possibility! Maybe we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe it isn’t about Napoli vs. the Angels. Maybe it’s about the Angels vs. Mike Napoli. Naturally, there’s no way to prove this, either. Below, two .gifs of Mike Napoli hitting mistakes for home runs, and one .gif of Mike Napoli hitting a good pitch for a home run.
We’re all smart enough to understand that one player probably can’t “own” an opposing team, and that Mike Napoli probably doesn’t “own” the Angels. Odds are this is but a curious coincidence that would even out over a long enough period of time. If one player were to own an opposing team, though, it would probably look a lot like Napoli’s 2012 against his old organization. Without the Vernon Wells angle, this would be remarkable. With the Vernon Wells angle, this is simply delicious.