The Texas Rangers and Mike Napoli have reached a one-year contract extension. According to ESPN Dallas writer, Richard Durrett, Napoli and the Rangers agreed on a $9.4 million contract to avoid the upcoming arbitration hearing. This means the Rangers have another shot at a league MVP being a member of their team.
Last season, Napoli proved why it is very much within his reach to become an MVP. He hit .320/.414/.631 for an OPS of 1.046. He smashed 30 home runs and struck out just 85 times – his lowest strikeout total in his career while accumulating 300 or more plate appearances. And for those concerned with postseason performances of the past as a measure for a player’s future MVP candidacy, Napoli simply raked during the 2011 postseason. He was a big reason the Rangers even made it back to the World Series. In seven games, Napoli hit .350/.464/.700 for a ridiculous OPS of 1.164. He hit 2 home runs and drove in 10 runs. While RBI is not a good measure of a player’s performance as a whole, it is a good measure of a player’s ability to deliver in a clutch spot (a conversation for another day).
So what makes Napoli this sudden MVP candidate of the future? It’s his preparation and consistent improvement. Save for the 2010 season in which he struggled to a .238 batting average, Napoli has found a way to keep his trend line rising. From his .815 rookie season OPS to his 1.046 OPS last season, the upward slant of Napoli’s trend line is encouraging. Couple that with his age, the league in which he plays, and his home ball park, and we may see Napoli taking home MVP honors in the near future.
At 30 years old, Napoli should be in the prime of his career. Sure, he’s a catcher and their career expectancies are often lower, but Napoli has only played in 619 games over six seasons, an average of 103 games per season. That’s the equivalent of four full seasons, which physically puts Napoli in his prime. He plays in the American League where he can serve as a designated hitter anytime the Rangers would like. In fact, Napoli played 19 games as a DH last season alone. If his knees give him trouble, he can always be penciled in as an additional bat without the rigors of squatting behind home plate. And finally, he plays at The Ballpark in Arlington. This is one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the league. According to Baseball-Reference, the Rangers had an overall offensive park factor of 117 in 2011. To break things down further, ESPN lists the Rangers’ 2011 park factor for home runs at 1.500 (the highest in the league). Using the BR scale, this would be the equivalent of a 150 rating.
But beyond the built-in advantages Napoli has, the former 17th round draft pick can just play the game. And he can play it well. In 2010, Napoli posted his third highest K% of his career. As a result, his batting average suffered, his OBP suffered, and his weighted runs created plus (wRC+) suffered. He made adjustments in 2011 and had a career-low 19.7% strikeout rate. This helped him to his career-best wRC+ of 178. Napoli also improved his BAbip from .279 in 2010 to .344 in 2011. He did so with the help of an improved ground ball percentage and a consistent line-drive percentage. Last season, Napoli hit 39.2% of balls in play for ground balls. These balls found holes and improved his BAbip.
Perhaps the biggest jump between 2010 and 2011 was Napoli’s HR/FB rate (home run to flyable rate). In 2010, his final year with the Angels, Napoli saw 19.3% of his fly balls leave the yard. Last year, his first in Texas, he saw 25.4% rocket over the wall. It’s not surprising considering the leap in home runs Napoli saw.
From an opponents’ standpoint, Napoli saw vastly different pitching with Texas last season than he had in the past. This could have been a contributor to his success as well. Napoli saw fastballs 61% of the time last season. The average over the course of his career was 58.8% of the time. He saw far fewer sliders and far fewer curve balls as well. He saw sliders 13.2% of the time as opposed to his career average of 16.5%, and he saw curve balls 7.4% of the time as opposed to 8.6% of the time in his career. It’s surprising to see the changes in pitches seen considering Napoli stayed in the same division. The Angels knew him because he played with them, and the A’s and Mariners had faced him the previous five seasons. The shift is odd, but one explanation may have been Napoli’s increased patience at the plate. He walked 13.4% of the time. This may have forced pitchers to throw pitches with less break in the hopes of avoiding a walk.
And that brings us to the final piece of Napoli’s development, and a big reason why he will continue to improve. Plate discipline is a key factor for many power hitters. What separates players like Barry Bonds and Mark Reynolds is the plate discipline each player shows. Bonds would wait for pitches. Reynolds, not as much. Napoli is starting to rank closer to the Barry Bonds side of the spectrum after the performance he put on last season. These are the numbers that get lost in the slugging percentage and home runs, but they are the key to his ongoing success. We’ll use Pitchf/x data provided by Fangraphs.
First of all, Napoli swung at a lot less pitches last season than he did in the past. In 2009, he swung at 43.1% of pitches thrown. In 2010, he swung at 43.8%. Last season, he reigned in the bat a bit, tuned in the eyes, and swung at just 40.0% of the pitches he saw. More importantly, he swung at the pitches outside the zone at the lowest rate of his career. His career average for swings outside the zone was 23.1%. Last season, Napoli swung at just 21.2% of pitches outside the strike zone.
Now, when Napoli did swing – whether it was inside the zone or out – he made contact. He increased his overall contact percentage from an average of 72.5% to 74.1%. This, of course, is a product of plate discipline in the fact that Napoli was able to be more selective. When he chose to swing, he swung at pitches he could put good wood on for the most part.
Put it all together and you have the makings of a future MVP. Don’t let him sneak up on you this season. He put on a show last season, I’ve given you my reasoning. With at least one more year in Texas solidified with the new contract, Napoli should see another breakout year. Perhaps, this breakout year will lead to the honors his friend and teammate Josh Hamilton received in 2010.