Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/15/14
There are free agents whose markets are presently almost complete mysteries. I haven’t the foggiest idea which team might be most likely to sign Josh Hamilton, and odds are the same goes for you. Then there are the free agents whose markets seem better known. B.J. Upton appears to be nearing a decision, and we have a pretty good idea of who he’s deciding between. And Mike Napoli‘s market includes three teams, if reports are to be believed. He’s already met with the Mariners, he’s already met with the Red Sox, and he’s shortly to meet with the Rangers. More suitors could emerge, but that’s the picture right now. Napoli is a somewhat high-profile free agent, being a power hitter capable of playing behind the plate. He’s also a somewhat in-demand free agent, so I thought it’d be a good idea to run a little Mike Napoli Q&A. We all want to know as much as we can about the various free agents — there is much to know about Mike Napoli, just as there is much to know about everyone. We’ll begin with a basic question, and go from there. Is Mike Napoli really a free agent right now? Yes, this is not something anyone has denied. Mike Napoli is, without question, currently a baseball free agent. As a free agent, what is Mike Napoli seeking? Reports out there suggest that Napoli wants a guaranteed four-year contract. It’s unknown how much money he expects, but there are also reports that, a year ago, Napoli turned down a three-year contract with the Rangers worth $38 million. That was after a phenomenal 2011; Napoli struggled more in 2012. Ken Rosenthal is the latest to talk about Napoli’s desire for four years, but of course, what Napoli wants isn’t necessarily what Napoli will get. Napoli will accept the best offer he is given, based on terms and location. Guaranteeing four years for Mike Napoli just seems like kind of a bad idea, right? I think this is one of those ideas that just makes you grimace a little on its own. Napoli is 31 years old, he’s caught a lot, and he has that assortment of old-player skills people have been talking about for 15 or 20 years. It feels like Napoli is going to deteriorate, if he hasn’t already started. It feels like he could be all but without value within just a few seasons. These feelings are based on some historical precedent. These feelings also aren’t infallible predictions. How people feel about Mike Napoli means something, but it doesn’t mean everything. Was Mike Napoli, offensively, a product of Texas? It’s fair to wonder about any player coming from a fairly extreme environment. However, Napoli proved himself earlier in Anaheim, and here are his home/road splits since joining Texas before the 2011 season: Home: .259/.376/.521 Road: .290/.383/.582 The right way to interpret those splits is not that Napoli should get better away from Texas. That doesn’t make any reasonable sense. The right way to interpret those splits is that Napoli did not hit only in Texas the last couple years. He’s still just a legitimately good hitter — or, he was, as recently as this past season. What do we make of Mike Napoli’s 2012 strikeout spike? In Napoli’s incredible 2011, he struck out in 20 percent of his plate appearances. In Napoli’s more discouraging 2012, he struck out in 30 percent of his plate appearances. That is the same strikeout rate, except where there was a 2, then there was a 3. That’s a huge spike, and it’s cause for some alarm. However, Napoli didn’t establish a new norm. In 2010, he struck out in 27 percent of his plate appearances. For his career, he’s at 25 percent. His 2012 contact rate — how often Napoli made contact when swinging — wasn’t significantly different from his career contact rate, and it was slightly better than his 2010 contact rate. One can’t just ignore that Napoli’s strikeouts shot up, but it seems to me this is less about 2012 being an anomaly, and more about 2011 being an anomaly. Is Mike Napoli as bad at catcher defense as it seems? You just look at Mike Napoli and you probably form an opinion about his defense as a catcher. That opinion is not wholly inaccurate. Napoli has thrown out a below-average rate of would-be base-stealers over his career. During the PITCHf/x era, he’s blocked a below-average rate of blockable pitches. Advanced metrics give Napoli a negative rating, and that’s without considering pitch-framing effectiveness. What’s the deal with Mike Napoli’s pitch-framing effectiveness? That depends on how you feel about pitch-framing studies. But, Mike Fast found Napoli to be pretty strongly negative. Matthew Carruth found Napoli to be pretty strongly negative, after 2012. According to Carruth’s numbers, Napoli had his then-worst framing season in 2011, then he followed that up with an even worse 2012. We don’t know anything about pitch-framing aging curves, because we hardly even know anything about pitch framing, but Carruth found that, in 2012, Napoli was nearly two pitches below average per game. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it all adds up. We probably cannot, of course, pin that entirely on Napoli. And Napoli could regress up. What do we do with Mike Napoli’s 2011 season? Two years ago, Napoli batted 432 times and posted a four-digit OPS. By strikeout rate and BABIP, it was completely out of character, and Napoli’s 2012 looked a lot more like the seasons before it. Since 2010, obviously with 2011 included, Napoli has been about as good a hitter as Adrian Beltre, Adrian Gonzalez, and Allen Craig. If you just look at 2012, though, Napoli’s peer group includes the likes of Cody Ross, Michael Morse, and Adam Dunn. When projecting what Napoli might do going forward, it’s probably best not to put too much weight on 2011. What Napoli most recently did seems like a better indicator of what he could do. With that said, Napoli’s 2011 happened, and it’s a sign of that of which Napoli is capable. Consider it something of an upper bound. If and when Napoli signs with a team, people will wonder about how quickly he’ll decline. Just two season ago, Napoli was among the very best hitters in baseball. Downsides must not be considered without upsides. Considering downsides without upsides just makes you pessimistic and sad. Do teams share our Mike Napoli concerns? Of course they do. There’s a reason the Rangers reportedly offered Napoli just three seasons a year ago. There’s a reason the Rangers didn’t extend to Napoli a qualifying offer. There’s a reason Napoli is holding out hope for a four-year deal, instead of something longer — it’s going to be difficult for him to get a four-year deal. Interested teams know the numbers better than we do. Interested teams know the projections and precedents better than we do. Interested teams have a lot riding on getting this decision right. Ultimately, the team that lands an in-demand free agent generally overpays, and thus someone’s probably going to overpay for Mike Napoli, but that’ll happen only after considerable thought, and Napoli’s contract probably won’t look like a disaster. Few contracts look like disasters, because they’re all the result of rational thought processes. When it comes to guaranteeing four years to Mike Napoli, teams probably feel more or less the way that you do. That doesn’t mean, though, that you avoid Mike Napoli, and it isn’t about Napoli’s value four years from now — it’s about Napoli’s value over the life of whatever contract he signs.
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