Friday, January 10, 2014

My Inevitable Post-2013 Napoli Post

It would be easy to look at Napoli's 2013 stats and say, "Hey, look, I was sorta right." In fact, why not do that?

Napoli in 2013: .259 BA / .360 OBP, 23 HR, 92 RBI, 38 2B

The stats show that this is a decent season, but we're not talking Cooperstown stuff here. But the question is should that matter?

Of course, to a certain extent, stats do matter because they show an aptitude of a player to be able to have success at the highest level of baseball. Physical fitness and potential alone just do not cut it when a player is at the MLB level - they have to have discipline at the plate to even produce a .240 batting average. If you need an example of raw physical talent not panning out, look no further than Wily Mo Pena.

Wily Mo, by the way, might have been the strongest person to ever play at the highest level of baseball. When he connected, the home runs he hit were majestic. He had an amazing amount of physical talent. Hell, 19% of Wily Mo's hits were home runs... 24% of Babe Ruth's hits were home runs; 22% of Mickey Mantle's hits were home runs. So Wily Mo is in pretty good company there. But the only thing Wily Mo could hit was a fastball. His approach to at bats sucked, and he never adjusted to Major League pitching in a way that enabled him to amass all of his talents to become a prolific slugger.

Strength and intelligence are important at the plate. Players like Wily Mo didn't have it, but Mike Napoli did.

Napoli provides a case where myself and the Sabermetric statheads both didn't get it right; and, in retrospect, I'm happy the Red Sox signed him for 2013. I'm also happy to see Napoli take a hometown discount to stay in Boston.

Around this time last year, the Sabr predictions for Napoli were ridiculous: a .280 AVG / 30+ HR season, yadda yadda. I didn't believe it, and one reason why is because I doubted Napoli could be a full time player without getting injured. I was wrong, and the Sabermetricians were wrong - Napoli played full time, but he didn't amass the stats many thought he would.

Instead, he hit 23 HR - mostly off bad pitchers - with a .259 batting average. But his OBP of .360 shows that pitchers feared him, and that's telling.

I'm not going to look up Napoli's playoff stats, because the playoffs shouldn't be about stats. In fact, I'm sure Napoli's playoff stats were worse than his regular season stats - but the playoffs are about memories. And I remember Napoli hitting a fucking moonshot off Verlander in Detroit during the ALCS. This was the moment where, for me, Napoli transcended stats.

Napoli might not be as strong as physical freaks like Wily Mo Pena, but the dude is built. And everyone in MLB knows that when Napoli connects, he can hit the ball the fucking mile. That's why you see a 100 point disparity between Napoli's batting average and his OBP - pitchers fear this man. Pitchers also knew that Napoli strikes out a ton, but when he connects... Forget it. That ball is long gone.

Baseball has a lot of players who can hit .259. Most of them are middle infielders with good gloves and Punching Judy swings - they'll hit singles and that's about it. Napoli is different. Napoli isn't the best contact hitter in the world, and his the rate he's able to strikeout at can be annoying. But what I learned from watching Napoli last season is that nothing can beat raw power when it's wielded with discipline.

Napoli won't be the best hitter in the league, but there are games when he slams a pitch into never-never land and you have to admit that he was the best player that night. Napoli always has the potential to become that, and most of the time he won't... But this talent to be the best player for even a night doesn't exist with most ballplayers. Napoli is special and has this talent - and pitchers fear becoming a victim to those few times that Napoli could eat them alive.

I didn't see this talent in Napoli during the offseason last year. To my credit, I don't think anyone did. On one side you had the Sabermetricians pulling fantasy stats out of their ass, and on the other side you had people like myself saying those stats were bullshit. Both sides missed the point. Napoli showed us what the point was in 2013, and I think all of us are happier for this.

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