Wherefore Art Thou Mike Napoli?

MLB: ANGELS vs. DODGERS APR 03
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I’m sure by now everyone has noticed, but in case you haven’t, Mike Napoli hasn’t been playing much lately. And apparently, he’s not very happy about it. I can’t really say I blame him. If I’m being honest here, I’m not terribly happy about it either.

In the Angels’ first 11 games, Napoli has played in 4 games, with Mathis handling the rest. To be fair to Mathis, he hasn’t hit like Jeff Mathis in those games, sporting a current line of .333/.346/.458, and there’s something to be said for going with the hot hand. Of course, there’s also something to be said for paying attention to a player’s history. Mathis may be riding a 7-game hitting streak right now, but over the previous 265 games before that, spread over the past five seasons, Mathis put up an uber-unimpressive .200/.277/.320 line. In case you’re curious, that would put Mathis’ AVG since 2005, even with his hot start in 2010, more than 10 points under the Mendoza Line. Napoli, on the other hand, has a .255/.356/.489 over the past five seasons. That is 241 points of difference in OPS. That is literally the difference, in OPS, between Albert Pujols and Nick Swisher. I’m not trying to argue that Napoli is the catcher version of Pujols, but instead to illustrate the giant gap that 241 points of OPS is. Napoli and Mathis have shown themselves to be vastly different hitters, and it’s hard for me to believe Mathis has changed all that in one off-season.

People, Mike Scioscia included, will point to the difference in defense as a reason why Mathis should be starting more. To be sure, Napoli is not a defensive whiz behind the plate. Unfortunately, Mathis’ defense doesn’t remotely make up enough ground between them to be worth starting him so much more. Driveline Mechanics looked at catcher defense, and while I won’t go into their entire methodology here, I think their results are quite interesting. Out of the 114 catchers they looked at in 2009, Mike Napoli finished dead last. #114. Not good, right? Jeff Mathis, he of the great defense, finished at #90. That means, in 2009, there were 90 other catchers that showed better defense than Jeff Mathis. It should be noted that, obviously, not all 90 were starting catchers, and some of those had as few as 10 PA’s in 2009. That said, there are plenty of those 90 that had more than 1000 PA (defensive, obviously). Mathis is a better defender, sure, but he’s not nearly as good as people would like to believe.

The Hardball Times also looked at the issue, prompted by the lack of starts Mike Napoli has seen this season. Again, I’ll let them explain their methodology, but while DL looked at only defense, THT uses a different defensive formula, and also includes offense into the mix. Using an average of three different projection systems (CHONE, ZiPS, and Oliver) for both Mathis’ and Napoli’s offense… well, you already know where this is going, don’t you? If Mathis gets 75% of the playing time, the Angels project to lose about 13.5 runs from the catcher position. Reverse that and give Napoli 75% of the playing time, and the Angels are gaining 2.5 runs from the catcher position. That’s a difference of 16 runs!

To give some credit to FanGraphs, they actually predicted this might happen way back in December. Unfortunately, their prediction seems to be coming true. If Mathis can keep hitting like he’s been, it may not be as bad for the Angels as people are predicting. His history, however, suggests this is Mathis on a hot streak, and it will end literally any day now. When they happens, we just have to hope Scioscia has the good sense to start Napoli far more heavily than he has been.

(Nate Proctor is the lead writer for Halo Hangout.  You can stay up to date on all of Nate’s work by following him on TwitterFacebook, or by way of the Halo Hangout RSS feed.)

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Tags: CHONE Driveline Mechanics FanGraphs Hardball Times Jeff Mathis Mike Napoli Mike Scioscia Oliver ZiPS

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