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Prospect Retrospective: Mike Napoli

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Mike Napoli Prospect Retro

The big hero for the Texas Rangers in Game Five of the World Series was catcher Mike Napoli, who is the topic of today's Prospect Retrospective.

Mike Napoli was drafted by the Anaheim Angels in the 17th round in 2000, from high school in Cooper City, Florida (population 27,939 in the 2000 census, median family income $78,172, part of the South Florida Metro). He was assigned to Butte in the Pioneer League after signing, but was limited to just 10 games by a back injury, hitting .231/.400/.308 in those contests. He got off to a late start again in 2001 and played 50 games in A-ball, 43 for Low-A Cedar Rapids (.232/.341/.406) and seven for High-A Rancho Cucamonga (.200/.429/.350). He wasn't really on the radar as a prospect at this point, except among the most fanatic Angels fans.

Napoli got a full season with Cedar Rapids in 2002, hitting .251/.362/.392 with 10 homers and 62 walks in 362 at-bats. This was when I first became aware of him, seeing him play a couple of games in the Midwest League. He looked like a guy with some pop in his bat and a willingness to work counts, but he was quite slow and I wasn't impressed with his movements behind the plate. I didn't put him in the 2003 book but would have given him a Grade C if I had.

Promoted back to Rancho Cucamonga for 2003, Napoli missed all but 47 games with a labrum injury, hitting .267/.362/.412 in those 165 at-bats. He drew some attention for his patience and power potential, but scouts remained skeptical about his glove and wondered how the injury would impact his future.

2004 was a big step forward: he stayed healthy, played 132 games for Rancho, hitting .282/.393/.539 with 29 homers, 118 RBI, and 88 walks in 482 at-bats. He also struck out 166 times and split the season between catcher and first base, and impressed no one with his glove at either position. He was also diagnosed with arthritis in his shoulder, not what you want to see from a 23-year-old. Scouts complained that his swing was too long. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2005 book, writing that "I think his power will carry forward to higher levels, but he's probably a .240 hitter against better pitching. If he continues to draw walks, that will be enough."

Moved up to Double-A Arkansas in 2005, he hit .237/.372/.508 with 31 homers, 88 walks, and 140 strikeouts in 439 at-bats, performing as anticipated, losing batting average but maintaining the power and patience. He also threw out 47% of runners trying to steal on him. Scouts continued to complain about his lack of mobility, but admitted that his throwing had improved and began praising his leadership skills. I rated him a Grade C+ in the '06 book, writing that he would fit well as a catcher/first base/DH type and that he would be "something like a cross between Matt LeCroy, Mickey Tettleton, and Rob Deer."

Napoli spent most of 2006 in the majors, hitting .228/.360/.455 for the Angels, and has been in the majors ever since with Los Angeles and, this year, the Texas Rangers after having been shipped to Toronto for Vernon Wells and then from Canada to Texas for Frank Francisco. He has been a consistent power source, hitting 122 homers in 619 games, with a career line of .264/.359/.514 and averaging 32 homers and 68 walks per 162 games. His career OPS+ is 129 and he's never had a season where his OPS+ was below league average. His WARs have been solid: 2.6 in '06, 1.5 in '07, 2.8 in '08, 3.0 in '09, 2.7 in '10, and an outstanding 5.6 in '11, giving him a 18.2 in his career through age 29.

As you know, his 2011 season was tremendous: .320/.414/.631 with 30 homers, 171 OPS+, and now post-season heroics. He's not a terrific defensive catcher but he's not horrible, and his bat covers for any deficiencies.

Although Mickey Tettleton never hit .320, his power/patience approach and ability to play catcher and first base without killing you still reminds me of Napoli. Tettleton finished with a career 31.8 WAR, with his peak seasons being 1989 at age 29 (.258/.369/.509, 150 OPS+, 4.8 WAR) and  1991 at age 30 (.263/.387/.491, 140 OPS+, 6.0 WAR). I think Napoli can follow a similar path, with 2011 being his peak season paralleling Tettleton, with a slow decline in his early 30s.

You may recall that when Napoli was a prospect, his main competition in the Angels system was Jeff Mathis, a much superior athlete with more respect from scouts for his tools. Mathis is a career .194/.257/.301 hitter; Napoli outclasses him by a huge amount offensively.

But what about their gloves? How does their defense compare?

Mathis has played 3307 innings behind home plate. In those innings, he has given up 27 passed balls, committed 37 errors, while collecting 252 assists. He has thrown out 24% of runners in his career.

Napoli has played 3729 innings behind home plate. In those innings, he has given up 21 passed balls, made 34 errors, while collecting 206 assists and throwing out 25% of runners.

Per inning, Napoli actually makes fewer errors and gives up fewer passed balls than Mathis, while throwing out runners at a comparable rate. However, Mathis has a big lead with assists, reflecting his greater quickness and mobility, and the more sophisticated sabermetric defensive measures are impressed with him. Fielding Bible rates Napoli quite poorly at -18 Defensive Runs Saved as a catcher over his career, while Mathis comes out positive at +10 DRS.

Ultimately, however, Napoli's greatly superior bat eliminates any value advantage Mathis gains for being better with the glove. In this case, superior skills trumped superior tools.