Recently, writers have been revisiting Tony Reagins’ worst trade, Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera for Vernon Wells. On Friday, our own Shlomo Sprung praised the Rangers for jumping in and winning the trade in a big way.
They say hindsight is 20/20, and in this case foresight was at least 20/30. Wells isn’t a particularly good player, especially considering his massive cost, and he’s played that way in 2011. The part that wasn’t quite expected was Napoli’s huge season. But can he repeat? Put another way, is he really this good?
Napoli’s performance largely can be attributed to a high batting average and improved power. When a jump in batting average is present, the very first thing to check is batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
For Napoli, his 2011 BABIP of .345 is easily a career high. At first glance, it appears as though he is benefiting from some luck, especially since his career BABIP is .303 with several seasons in the .270s. However, his expected balls in play average (xBABIP) based on his batted ball outcomes is .323, which indicates that luck probably didn’t play a huge role in his batting average.
There are several indicators that suggest Napoli is seeing the ball particularly well this season. He’s squaring up balls, with a career-high line drive rate of 20.3 percent. His walk rate jumped from 8.2 percent in 2010 to 13.6 percent in 2011 (career rate of 11.6 percent). Meanwhile, his strikeout rate dropped from 26.9 percent in 2010 to 19.9 percent this season (career rate of 24.6 percent).
The lower strikeout rate is supported by fewer swinging strikes. He has whiffed at 10.1 percent of pitches in 2011 compared to 12.9 percent in 2010 and 11.7 percent over his career. Part of that can be attributed to improved plate discipline. He’s swinging at four percent fewer pitches this season, spread evenly across all locations.
Somewhat curiously, he’s made contact on 64.1 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, compared to a career rate of 55.4 percent. Altogether, the data seem to indicate that Napoli is seeing the ball better than ever.
If Napoli is seeing the ball better than in the past, it could explain his lofty power numbers. His isolated power of .302 is a considerable improvement on his last two seasons where he topped out at .220 and .230, respectively. It’s worth noting that in 2008, Napoli managed a .313 ISO in 274 plate appearances. Nearly a quarter of Napoli’s fly balls, 24.3 percent, are going for home runs, which explains the big jump in power.
Going forward, his home run rate may be the most important variable to watch for in predicting future performance. It could be that Napoli has reached a new level of talent and can sustain the lofty home run rate. Or we might find that Napoli will regress towards his career rates in 2012.
Ultimately and as with any prediction, it is difficult to say whether or not Napoli’s performance is sustainable. There are many reasons to believe that Napoli is seeing the ball particularly well in 2011, making this a breakout season rather than a statistical fluke. Yet there remain a few reasons to temper enthusiasm. It’s probably a safe bet to expect big things from Napoli in 2012, though you just might want to avoid counting on an OPS over 1.000.