As far as team sports go, baseball is a bit odd. Unlike the constant motion sports like hockey and basketball and soccer, baseball is incredibly granular, with each event taking part in its own discrete space. The only major team sport (at least in America) that shares this granularity is football, but even football shares more with the aforementioned three than it does with baseball, due to the necessity of exceptionally coordinated team movements.
Instead, baseball is a series of individual vs. individual events. Oddly enough, this highly individual-based game seems to prevent all but the very greatest players of all time from carrying teams on their backs to championships — and even then, the production of a Barry Bonds or an Albert Pujols cannot hold a candle to what a Michael Jordan or a Bill Russell ever did for their teams, largely because these highly individualized events can actually exclude baseball’s superstars from even participating at all when the game is on the line.
Perhaps it is because of this phenomenon of the sport that we’ve seen Mike Napoli — a semi-platooned catcher-slash-designated hitter who was cast off by not one but two general managers by February– define so much of the American League in 2011.
Of course, while the above labeling of Napoli is true, it is a bit dramatic. As it turns out, the guy can flat out rake. Upon the move to Texas, Napoli discovered the ability to make contact and a true beast was unleashed on the American League. With a career low 19.7% strikeout rate (and the help of The Ballpark in Arlington), Napoli’s fantastic power was truly freed, manifesting itself in a career high 30 home runs in just 432 plate appearances. Although he does other things well — like take a walk once every eight plate appearances — this power was largely the basis beyond his excellent 5.6 wins above replacement.
Seeing as the Rangers finished ten games in front of the Angels, it’s probably fair to say they would have had the inside track without Napoli, but as I wrote in September it’s a much closer proposition.
Put Napoli back on the Angels and Vernon Wells back on the Toronto Blue Jays? The division-winning Rangers lose their best hitter of the season, and the second place Angels funnel some plate appearances from their three worst players (Wells, Jeff Mathis, and Bobby Wilson, who combined for -0.7 WAR in 937 trips) to some of their best (Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout along with Napoli, with 10.7 WAR in 1,119 trips). With that lineup to go with the two-headed monster that is Dan Haren and Jered Weaver, it isn’t difficult to envision the Angels with 96 wins instead of Texas, especially seeing as a few of the 12 victories the Rangers took over the Angels could be flipped in this wild what-if scenario.
Of course, all this is is one massive what-if, and it was a Texas team that Napoli helped to the playoffs instead of one in Anaheim of Los Angeles. Still, if Napoli wasn’t the most valuable player of the American League West, his overarching story was definitely the most influential.
And his impact doesn’t end there — although Texas was carried through the playoffs by Nelson Cruz (and an amazing bullpen), Napoli made his mark in each of the first two playoff series as well. The 29-year-old righty went 4-for-14 in the series against the Rays, punching home two RBI in the Rangers’ first win of the postseason in Game Two and delivering the death blow of Game Three with a two-run home run in the seventh inning off Rays ace David Price. He followed that up with a 7-for-24 performance in the ALCS, with his lone RBI coming as the go-ahead single off Jose Valverde in the tenth inning of Game Four, putting the Rangers in control of the series.
As the attention centers around Cruz and his stellar six-homer postseason — and rightfully so — Napoli, just as in April, sits outside the spotlight. But of any of the hitters participating in the 2011 World Series, Napoli put together the most impressive offensive output of the year, with his 1.046 OPS, .444 wOBA, and 178 wRC+ all leading the pack, and by a rather wide margin — 87 points of OPS, 42 points of wOBA, and 24 points of wRC+ over Lance Berkman. Although I wouldn’t say Napoli is the most talented hitter of the bunch — I would probably have to give Albert Pujols that nod — Napoli’s ability to produce in the World Series should not be questioned. He has been shaping the landscape of the season since January, and there is no reason to believe he will stop now.