The Quantity and Quality of Napoli’s Contact

Mike Napoli was, at least at the time, an under-discussed portion of not only one of the worst trades of recent times, but also the puzzling follow-up trade in which the Jays sent Napoli to the Rangers for reliever Frank Francisco. Even given that at the time Napoli was not projected to be the monster he turned to be in 2011, that seems really weird given that his hitting style seemed to fit right into the type of sluggers the Jays love to collect.

In any case, after dealing with injury issues early in the year Napoli turned into one of the great stories of the 2011 season, as he not only hit for great power even by his previous standard, but significantly upped his average (by cutting his strikeout rate and boosting his BABIP) to finish the season with a .320/.414/.631 (144 wRC+) line that rivaled Josh Hamilton‘s from 2010.

Even given reasonable expectations for regression, Napoli’s 2012 has been disappointing. While he has dealt with health issues this season, going on the disabled list this weekend after trying to play through an injury, Napoli has never really gotten going in 2012. After a career best wRC+ in 2011, Napoli currently has a seasonal career worst 105 wRC+. The easy thing would be to simply point to average on balls in play dropping back closer to his pre-2011 rates, but the issues go beyond that. His drop in power is particularly interesting.

Of course, the lower batting average does have a great deal to do with Napoli’s problem. Napoli was always a high-strikeout guy for the Angels. However, while one would have naturally expected both his power numbers and BABIP to improve after the trade given the change in parks, even with the acknowledgment that parks can affect stuff like strikeout rates, Napoli’s strikeout rate drop to under 20 percent in 2011 after being around 25 percent for most of his previous seasons was shocking. It might be even more surprising that after a career best year in that respect, he would now be posting a career-worst strikeout rate at just over 30 percent so far.

It is not as if Napoli faced a whole new set of pitchers in 2011 who had to take a year to learn how to pitch to him — he was even in the same division. His contact rate is not any worse than it was in 2010 with the Angels, and he is actually swinging at fewer bad pitches. However, while he might be making contact at a similar (poor) rate as 2010, plate appearances are ending with it at an even lower rate. Whatever the cause (and I am not qualified to speculate on stuff like underlying injuries), strikeouts have been a big problem.

However, as mentioned at the outset, strikeouts are hardly Napoli’s only problem in 2012. To go back to 2010 with the Angels, while Napoli did not have as high a strikeout rate as he does this year, it was high. But his average on balls in play was about the same, and of even more interest, his isolated power was actually a bit higher in 2010 than 2012 despite the Angels’ home park being less generous to right-handed hitters than the Rangers’ in almost all respects.

Napoli is not hitting home runs on plate appearances ending contact (HR/[AB-K]) at the quite same rate he was last year. In 2011, he did so at a rate of about 10.5 percent, this year he is at about 8.7 percent. His 2012 rate is closer to his last year with the Angels, when he his home runs on 8.1 percent of such plate appearances. But again, given that Texas is a much more generous park, one would not necessarily expect that much regression.

Using Hit Tracker to look a bit more closely, we see that in 2012 Napoli’s average home run has a speed 101.8 miles per hour off of the bat with an average standard distance (that is, normalized for the sake of comparison) of 386.7 feet. As one would expect, in 2011, those numbers were better: 104.1 miles per hour and 403.8 feet. In 2010, however, when his home run rate was just slightly less than this year, while the standard distance was right in between 2010 and 2012 at 393.5 feet, the speed off of the bat was closer to 2012. While this is based on a relatively small sample of home runs from each season, it is a bit of evidence that the quality of contact Napoli is making in 2012 is not that of previous seasons for either Texas and Los Angeles.

One might also infer this from his rate of extra-base hits in play ([2B+3B]/[H-HR]). So far in 2012, that rate is about 18 percent. That is also the lowest of Napoli’s career. In 2011, he was at 28 percent, in 2010 he was over 30 percent. In all of his previous seasons in Anaheim Napoli was at around 28 percent of his hits on play going for extra bases for about 28 percent except for 2008, when it was still around 24 percent. Moreover, in 2008 he had his highest rate of home runs on contact of his career (12.3 percent), so many of those would-be doubles were likely going for home runs. This is more evidence that Napoli is not hitting the ball as ahrd in 2012 as he did not only in 2011, but in pre-2011 seasons.

There could be many explanations for Napoli’s problems with contact in 2012 — underlying injuries, Napoli not picking the right pitches to try and pull, or simply aging. Random variation is another (boring) possibility. Obviously, the quantity of Napoli’s contact has been a big issue this year. But this brief look at some numbers also shows that the quality of the contact he is making is not what it has been in the past — even the pre-2011 past.



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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


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