Rangers catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli has four home runs and nine RBI in his last three games. He had been off to a slow start in 2012, but Red Sox pitching has helped him restore his slash line to .273/.375/.667, good for a .432 wOBA, which ranks eighth in the American League. Since the beginning of 2011, Napoli is hitting .316/.411/.634, leading the majors in slugging percentage, wOBA, and weighted Runs Created. With all due respect to Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera, Napoli’s the best hitter in the game right now.
What does it mean when the best hitter in the game is a catcher? Given the demands of the position and the relative scarcity of offensive prowess among catchers, one would think such a behemoth of a catcher would be the game’s best player, but we rarely hear Napoli’s name in that discussion. In fact, on my own list, released just weeks ago, I ranked Napoli just 29th among all players. What’s keeping Napoli from the top line?
Presumably, it’s the same thing that kept Mike Scioscia from playing him more regularly- his defense. But some metrics consider Napoli above average with the glove, and a better-than-average catcher with even an average bat is immensely valuable.
Before we take a closer look at Napoli’s defense, I’d like to posit that, while catcher is the most demanding position on the diamond, the average catcher is probably no more valuable than the average shortstop. Most catchers don’t play more than 135 games per year, at least not behind the plate. In 2011, Napoli caught in just 61 games and appeared in 52 more as a first baseman or DH. It’s hard to accrue as much value in 113 games, or even in 135, as a shortstop accrues in 155.
It seems like catchers should be evaluated against other catchers, since a replacement catcher likely wouldn’t play 150 games either, but the fact remains that a catcher brings no tangible value by sitting on the bench. This is why teams like the Rangers find room for elite offensive catchers elsewhere on the field when they don’t catch. So if Napoli catches 130 games and plays elsewhere in 30 more, he can be the best player in baseball, right?
Not so fast. Bulky catchers like Napoli can block pitches and control the running game better than most humans, but take them out from behind the plate and they’re typically limited to first base, the game’s least demanding position, or DH. This can be misconstrued as positional flexibility, when in reality it typically rests another strong offensive player (though not necessarily in the Rangers’) case. True positional flexibility is when a shortstop takes a day off the position to fill in for an injured second- or third baseman.
So to be one of the game’s most valuable players, in addition to mashing at the plate, Napoli would have to be pretty slick behind it. We don’t know much yet about what catchers are best at managing pitchers or framing pitches, but we do know how well Napoli controls the running game (one run above average, per fangraphs, in 2011, but slightly below average for the rest of his career). We know he was slightly above average at preventing passed balls in ’11, saving half a run, while he’s been just below average there throughout his career as well.
On a more subjective level, we know Mike Scioscia was never a fan of his defense, and that Ron Washinton has been reluctant to assign the tools of ignorance to Napoli too often. Additionally, fangraphs’ fan scouting report likes Napoli’s arm strength, accuracy, hands, and instincts, but fans aren’t too keen on his speed or his first step. Overall, the fans see what the numbers see, a below average catcher who had a career year in 2011.
Add it all up and we’ve still got some gray area. Napoli probably won’t be the best hitter in baseball again this year, but there’s a good chance he’s the best hitting catcher, even as Matt Wieters finally establishes himself. However, even if 2011 was truly a step in the right direction for Napoli defensively, he’s no Yadier Molina behind the plate, and he’s probably not as valuable as Wieters overall. Unless he catches 135 games, throws out a bunch of runners, and keeps raking as a first baseman on most of his days off, Napoli isn’t likey to bring as much value as teammate Ian Kinsler, a second baseman who excels in every facet of the game, or several other well-rounded players.
Then again, as an opposing fan (or pitcher), I wouldn’t want to see Napoli at the plate with a postseason game on the line. Would you?