Mike Napoli and Michael Young have more in common than a uniform and a first name. Each began his career playing a premium defensive position- catcher for Napoli and shortstop for Young. Neither was very good at it- Napoli was spurned repeatedly by Mike Scioscia for the smooth-fielding Jeff Mathis despite being a much better hitter, while Young, despite winning a Gold Glove at shortstop, saved 56 fewer runs than the average shortstop, according to UZR, over the five seasons he played there. Each still has a job because of his bat.
This offseason, the Rangers acquired Napoli in a trade with Toronto for Frank Francisco. The Angels- due to foolishness, drug abuse, blackmail, or some combination of the above- included Napoli in a trade in which they took on Vernon Wells’ insane contract. Then the Blue Jays, perhaps out of guilt or fear of getting caught using blackmail, sent Napoli to the Rangers for reliever Frank Francisco. The Rangers saw Napoli as a utility player, capable of catching (which he did 66 times), playing first base (35 times), or designated hitting (12 times).
Meanwhile, Texas also signed Adrian Beltre, a better player than Young on both sides of the ball, to play third base. They shopped Young, but couldn’t find a taker for a 34-year-old making $17 million to earn 2-3 WAR per season. This left Young in a similar position as Napoli, a backup third baseman (40 games), first baseman (36), second baseman (14), and even shortstop (once), who would spend the rest of the season as designated hitter (68 games).
Young hit well in 2011, even contending for the batting title (he hit .338), but he didn’t bring much patience (47 walks) or power (11 home runs) to his role. Napoli, on the other hand, did everything that can be expected of a hitter. He batted .320/.414/.631, leading all major leaguers with 400+ plate appearances in OPS. He walked 58 times and hit 30 home runs, all in 257 fewer plate appearances than Young accrued.
Napoli missed three weeks in June with a strained oblique, but was healthy and productive the rest of the season. Why, then, did he come to the plate 257 fewer times than Young? Much like his tenure in Los Angeles, when Mike Scioscia never gave him more than 510 plate appearances despite consistently excellent production, Napoli’s manager often couldn’t find a place to play him.
What if Michael Young hadn’t been a Ranger this year? Napoli certainly could have taken some of his DH assignments and some of his starts at first base. The Rangers would have seen more of Esteban German when Beltre sat, and while German is no proven entity, he absolutely raked (.455/.462/.818) when he played (just 11 games).
Let’s give Napoli 200 of Young’s plate appeareances. Napoli created 92.4 runs this season, or 21.4 per 100 plate appearances. Young created 106.3, or 15.4 per 100 PAs. Shift 200 PAs to the superior player and the Rangers add 12 runs to their offense. That equates to a little more than a win. I’ll shave off the .2 in recognition of Young’s versatility, though he didn’t play any position particularly well (his UZR/150 games at first base was worse than Napoli’s although both are driven by very small sample sizes).
That still gives the Rangers an extra win if they gave 30% of Young’s plate appearances to Napoli. That win wouldn’t have meant much to the Rangers, who ran away with the division and earned home field advantage in the ALDS. They beat Tampa Bay today to earn a spot in the ALCS, and they’ll happily take the roster they’ve got into the next round. But the next time you hear someone suggest that Michael Young should show up somewhere on an MVP ballot, see how they react when you tell them the Rangers might have been better off without him this year.