Boston Red Sox Catching Up With Old Friends: Mike Napoli


You know that nostalgic feeling that you get when catching up with an old friend that you haven’t seen for a while? This offseason the BoSox Injection staff will be checking up on a number of former Red Sox players to see what they have been up to since leaving Boston, while reflecting on how the team has managed to replace them since they left.

Mike Napoli came up to the big leagues as a catcher with the Los Angeles (then Anaheim) Angels in 2006. As he displayed home run power as a catcher, the rigors of the position convinced the Angels to play him at first base to keep him on the field more. Every year in his major league career, he has hit at least double digits in homers. In 2011, Napoli had his best season, pounding a .320/.414/.631 batting line with 30 home runs in 432 plate appearances, while still splitting time between catcher and first base. His postseason of 2011 was a continuation of his success, knocking in ten runs in the World Series. He likely would have been the MVP if not for the Cardinals miraculous comeback and victory in the Series. While he still clubbed 24 homers in 2012, his OPS dropped by more than 200 points from the previous outstanding season.  Certainly, Napoli was on the Red Sox radar for 2013, despite 2012’s struggles.

Aside from his home run potential otherwise, Napoli was attractive to the Red Sox for his career seven homers in 49 plate appearances as a visitor through 2012. As now ex-general manager Ben Cherington put together that 2013 team after the debacle of the 2012 season under the lightning rod for controversy Bobby Valentine, Cherington was likely expecting Napoli would rake in Boston as he had before.

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It was not reasonable to expect Napoli to homer every seven at-bats but he had a respectable 23 homers and 92 RBI in 2013 and hit a huge game-winning homer in the ALCS to spur the Red Sox on to their World Series title. His mountain man beard that season spurred other Red Sox to grow their own facial hair, prompting gear reading “Fear The Beard”.  On social media, pictures emerged of a shirtless Napoli on the streets of Boston smoking a cigarette, and in bars partying with exuberant fans after the Series win.

After concerns about a degenerative hip ailment made him exclusively a first baseman, he took to the position well and provided solid defense. This hip ailment limited the Red Sox to initially offering a one year deal, but his stats for that year (and continued health)  led them to reward him with a two year/ $32 million deal for 2014-15. After the glory of 2013, the following season was a huge disappointment for the team and for Napoli whose homers, RBI and OPS all fell off.

The expansion of the strike zone over 2014 and 2015 seemed to bewilder Napoli who took an inordinate number of called strike threes and called strikes in general. For someone who made his reputation on being a guy who worked counts, seeing among the most pitches in the league, this was beyond frustration. Coupled with the fact that Napoli was expected to put up huge numbers this year after his debilitation sleep apnea was cured via surgery, Napoli was a huge disappointment in 2015.

The Red Sox dwindling fortunes in 2015 led them to explore trade options even past the July 31 trading deadline. A trade was worked out on August 7 to send Napoli, who was still owed $5.2 million for this season, to the Texas Rangers where, it was hoped, he would help them with their playoff run. It was an odd move for Texas considering they didn’t really have a spot for him as first base (Mitch Moreland) and designated hitter (Prince Fielder) were already taken. Texas might have been looking for an additional right handed bat, since those other hitters are left handed hitters. For the $1.5 million Texas paid Napoli for the remainder of this season, it turned out to be a good deal.

After posting just a .207/.307/.386 batting line in Boston, Napoli managed to find his swing despite limited playing time. In Texas, the free agent to be, posted a .295/.396/.513 batting line with five homers. To find him playing time, Napoli became a left fielder, starting 11 games there, which is ironic because he always had problems catching pop-ups while he was in Boston. This became a part-time position because in 11 starts, he didn’t complete a single game in the outfield, logging just 50 innings there over the 11 games. In just five chances in left field, Napoli made two errors, so wherever he lands, it is doubtful his new team is going to want the 34 year old to log much time in the outfield. Bottom line is: after Napoli arrived, Texas overtook Houston to win the American League West. His three-run first inning homer off Cy Young candidate Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros on September 16, spurred a key victory in that run.  The Rangers were 22-13 in games Napoli appeared.

In the 2015 postseason, Texas lost in five games in the American League Championship Series after winning the first two games of the series in Toronto. Napoli started only the first game of the series, but in game two, he delivered a game-tying single in the eighth inning, after coming in for Moreland in the middle of the game, to get to extra innings where the Rangers won that day. The single was his only hit in the series, going one for seven with two walks. In the final two games of the series, Napoli was limited to pinch hitting appearances. In game five, he narrowly missed a double then ended up striking out.

Aside from saving a small amount of money from their payroll, the team also was able to clear a spot for Travis Shaw to flourish over the last two months of the season. After three stints at the big league level, Shaw was called up for the rest of the season on August 1. He started at third base on that day, but took over for Napoli full-time at first base for the remainder of the season. Shaw managed to log 248 plate appearances in Boston, slashing a respectable .274/.331/.491 with 13 homers and 36 RBI in 55 starts (65 games total). Shaw was particularly effective at Fenway posting a .319/.364/.588 batting line. Lefties also were not a mystery to the left-handed hitting Shaw who torched them for a .329/.353/.622 slash line with six of his 13 homers coming off left handed pitching.

The emergence of Shaw was unexpected (considering his five homers all season at AAA) but more importantly provided a positive spin on the end of the Napoli era in Boston. Napoli will not be soon forgotten in Boston and wherever he ends up next season (somebody will sign him for those 18 homers he hit last season), when he comes back to Fenway, he will be greeted as warmly as a visiting player can be.