Tagged: Mike Napoli

The Napoli Conundrum

ESPN.com reports that Mike Napoli is the choice as the Red Sox’ first baseman in 2015. Maybe the big contract ($15 million) dictates that, but not Napoli’s consistency.

Because he has awesome power, Mike Napoli has always taken the spot behind David Ortiz in the line-up, but not always consistently. He had a respectable year in 2013, but even then he ran aground for two months, when he couldn’t hit anything. In 2014 he never hit his stride, as he was sidelined with multiple injuries.

If we assume good health and a consistent approach to the plate, Napoli might be good for 25 homers and some clutch hits, but we haven’t really seen that Napoli, except for August, September and October in 2013. Why should we expect more in 2015 with another year’s mileage on an aging slugger?

Mike Napoli would be enough in a line-up with some pop, but really the Red Sox have only one player who will hit 30 or more homers in 2015: David Ortiz. Yoenis Cespedes has power, but he has yet to crack 30 homers in a season, and there is no one to protect him in a lineup where he bats behind Ortiz. Napoli would be that guy if he was reliable and healthy, but this remains to be seen.

It all turns on a theory that power hitters are the answer to baseball’s tilt toward the pitcher. The Red Sox have proven they can get men on base, but one ground ball can kill a rally. The Sox are also adept at hitting into double plays.

However, one pitch missing the perfect spot can drive in runs. Good power hitters hack until they get that pitch, the one that grabs too much of the plate on hangs above the knees. Mike Napoli can do that when he’s healthy and patient. But he is also a sucker for the high fastball, as the scouting report goes. How will he deal with relief pitchers throwing high heat?

I was wrong about Napoli in 2013, and I could be again. But I know the Red Sox need power in their line-up to deal with rally-killers. It takes one pitch to kill a rally and one pitch to clinch one. Bring me a hitter who can wait for that pitch and pulverize it.

Power Outage

Looking over ESPN’s top ten prospects for the Red Sox, I fail to see a power hitter. After David Ortiz and Yoenis Cespedes, there’s not much power in the current line-up either. Whatever else happens in the Winter, the Red Sox will need to trade for a power hitter with some credibility.

Not Mike Napoli or Will Middlebrooks. Both have extended their medical benefits to their limits this year, and they are not consistent enough to make pitchers consider walking them. They both like to swing hard late in the count. Middlebrooks is not even a proven Major Leaguer. He is the lad of eternal promise, but now of broken promises. Napoli has been plagued with injuries, but he never gives you a full season of hitting. He goes on a bender for two months when he can’t hit anything. Since he can’t get out of  his slump without playing, he has to take quite a few big swings before starting to connect again.

The Sox now have incredibly agile outfielders, who will fill the gaps and keep base runners honest. But Rusney Castillo, Shane Victorino and Mookie Betts will not be clearing the bases with regularity. On base they will terrify, but someone has to drive them in.  Daniel Nava? He is a steady performer, but not the power threat they need.

Comparisons are odious, but the Baltimore Orioles  and the Los Angeles Angels have power up and down their line-ups.  They don’t always need a rally to score runs– just a sold connection. If a pitcher puts two men on in the late innings, it is too easy to bring in flame-throwing relief before the third hitter gets to drive them in. Teams with power can get the rally started before that happens. The Yankees did not have healthy power hitters this year. The result speaks for itself.

If the pendulum in baseball has again swung toward pitching, then the selective power hitter is one answer to that. A pitcher has only to make one mistake to lose to a power hitter. With the short game, two or three bad pitches may not hurt you. How many double plays did the Red Sox hit into this year?

For Christmas this year, I would like a power-hitting first baseman.

 

 

Hitless Wonders

The Red Sox pitching staff generally looks deep and ready, but the hitting looks sick, especially in the outfield. A lot of undercutting and lazy fly balls, with the exception of Jackie Bradley who is not even making contact. Probably an issue of timing, because the hitters with the long swings are struggling, like David Ortiz, Johnny Gomes and Mike Napoli. Daniel Nava is not having the spring he did last year, either.

From a fans’ view it seems like Dave Middlebrooks has learned something that all the big swingers could study–hit where it’s pitched and let the ball travel to the opposite field when necessary.  You see the same measured swings from Grady Sizemore and A J Pierczinski, just trying to put the ball in play.  If you can get two-thirds of your line-up swinging this way, you have an offense. Even David Ortiz has shown he can take the ball to right, befuddling the over-shift. So why can’t the whole line-up take this approach, as they work on their timing?

I’ve always thought the Yankees were better at moving base-runners a base or two at a time. Since the big boppers like Alex Rodriguez and Mark Texeira have been sidelined, their offense has produced by consistency, more than power.  But they had big run-scoring innings even with this incremental offense. They show patience at the plate with their swings, as well as their takes.  This year they have stocked up with Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann and with Texiera returning, but I doubt you will see the over-swinging that some teams depend on to score runs.

Mike Napoli is the only Red Sox player who relies on the big swing to create offense. He is going to strike out a lot and hit his share of homers. He may try to strike out less this year, but he will undoubtedly lead the team in K’s and homers at the same time. What you see is what you get with Napoli.

But the rest of the line-up, especially David Ortiz, are adaptable to what they are thrown. They are professional hitters, and it’s what made them World Champions.  Maybe we will see more of that when the season begins. But it will be sad if they continue to flail and pop out or strike out, when they could be producing like a team.  It would be exciting to see Sizemore and Pedroia on base and Ortiz driving them in with an opposite field hit.  The home runs can come later.

The Red Sox pitching is poised to have a spring of quality outings. It would great if the hitting would support them, even with three or four hard-earned runs.

The Cherrington Years

This is belated praise for the architect of the 2013 Red Sox: Ben Cherrington. Perhaps he stood on Theo Epstein’s shoulders, but what he did in one off-season outshines any year under the Epstein regime.

Look at the box score of the final World Series game: who drove in the six runs? Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, and Stephen Drew, all free-agent signings by Cherrington.  Victorino was one of the most-criticized signings, but without him the Red Sox are probably not even American League Champions.  He is the definition of a money player, and one who gives up his body to winning every game.

What about the signing of Koji Uhehara after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were already in the bullpen? Probably no way to predict what role he would have on the 2013 Red Sox, but maybe a hunch paid off. The word was that Uhehara had an expiration date and could not be counted on for regular bullpen duty.  That was no deterrent to Cherrington.

Less dramatically the trade for Jake Peavy surely paid off at the end of the season, as Clay Bucholz never fully recovered and Ryan Dempster became increasingly unreliable. Cherrington sacrificed Jose Iglesias in a three-way trade to bring in Peavy. Then we watched the early-blooming Bogarts make us forget Iglesias.  Iglesias will be a full-time gold glove winning shortstop some day, but he might never have gotten that chance on the Red Sox with Bogarts breathing down his neck.

I’m not sure what role Cherrington had in bringing Brandon Workman from Double-A ball to pitching the middle innings of the World Series, but it was shrewd choice. The Red Sox have always promoted young players very cautiously, perhaps allowing them to languish in the Minors. Ryan Lavarnway is in danger of dying on the vine. But Workman had the confidence and aggressiveness with batters that the Red Sox needed throughout the playoffs. That mindset promoted him past the Allen Websters and Rubby DeLaRosas, who could not pound the strike zone.

And of course, Cherrington brought back John Farrell, who managed this menagerie with consummate shrewdness and sensitivity.

Arguably the loss of any of these role players might have brought the Red Sox up short in their run for the World Championship, which suggests that Cherrington was prescient, the most important role player of all.  Pretty amazing for one year’s work.

I’m looking forward to the Cherrington years.

Oh, by the way, Ben, could we make a good run at Jacoby Ellsbury?

Winners of the “Gritty”

While handing out accolades of appreciation, we should also note those players who contributed with Hall-of-Fame grit this season.  These players laid their bodies down for the team in a year plagued with injuries.

The first Grit Award goes to Shane Victorino who slammed his body into walls and thrown baseballs to record outs and get to first base.  His ruthless attack on the outfield walls threatened a body already injury-prone.  I have never wanted so much to tell a player, “Hey, take it easy. Spoil the out and spare the body.”  I noticed fewer collisions in the second half of the season, so maybe I got through.

Then he made the historic journey to the right side of the plate, favoring his wounded right hamstring, and began to lean into pitches to get on base. Why the umpires allowed his regular joust with the inside pitch is a wonder to me.  As they say, “He took one for the team,” but I would say he took several.

The Second Grit Award goes to Mike Napoli who played with plantar fascitis, a condition he compared  to running on glass with bare feet.  Much of the mid-season his bat had on-the-schneiditis, a condition of carving the air against high-outside and low-outside pitches. However, in mid-August during the fabled West Coast Swing (2 of 3 each from the Giants and Dodgers) he let the dogs and the bat bark in harmony.  Napoli caught fire, while his feet burned, but nobody heard about the feet, only the feats of opposite field power.  After writing heartlessly about “batting crappily,” I have to give Napoli a “Gritty” for running through glass while driving in runs.

The third “Gritty” is a tie between one player who rose from the grave of Tommy John surgery and another who broke his foot, stole a base, and scored on a shallow fly in the same inning. Of course I mean John Lackey and Jacoby Ellsbury.  Lackey pitched inspirationally from Spring Training to the playoff-clinching win on Thursday night, a complete game of dominance.  He worked quickly and gained more and more control as the season waxed, and he took a lot of hard-luck losses. No one should judge Lackey for wins and losses this year, but for the determination that will most likely give him the “Comeback of the Year” award. Not as prestigious as the “Gritty.”

Ellsbury’s romance with the disabled list would remind you of Mickey Mantle, the archetypal talent bedeviled by injuries.  It looked like he was going to defy the DL this year until he hit a foul ball off the only place on his right foot unprotected by a shin guard.  Ellsbury’s return to the Disabled List should not overshadow the important run he scored that same night, after stealing second with his broken foot, hustling to third on an overthrow, and scoring on a shallow fly ball, which few others in the line-up would have attempted.

So for a full season of rehabilitating a serious arm injury and for one inning of running and scoring with pain, John Lackey and Jacoby Ellsbury deserve to share a “Gritty.”

Still, as the cliche goes, every team member contributed, and it would be safe to say each one would lay out for the sake of the team.  So the “Team Grit” award should go the Boston Red Sox.  And who can forget the “bloody sock” that started the gritudinous tradition?

A Feat Worth Noting

Mike Napoli deserves credit for playing through the pain of the plantar injury to his foot. On Sunday night he not only played, but drove in three runs with a double and a home run. He looked like the Mike Napoli of April who went missing for three months. Whether this is the real Mike Napoli or the once-in-a-blue-moon Mike Napoli remains to be seen.

But it takes plenty of nerve to play on an injury he describes as the pain of an ice pick stabbing you. Having given Napoli the Bronx cheer in this space (“Batting Crappily”) it seems only fair to applaud the guts it took to play with such pain. The Red Sox have a gutsy first baseman, if not a consistent one.

Meanwhile the jury is out on whether Napoli deserves a new contract at the end of the year. He still strikes out more than any other Red Sox batter, despite seeing more pitches than anyone in baseball. Apparently he is selective until he gets two strikes on him and then swings with abandon.  That seemed to work in April, but finally pitchers figured he would rip at the high ones and the low outside ones, and the punch-outs started to add up.

I’ve given both Napoli and Stephen Drew a little spite this month, and both have found the groove and anchored the lower half of the line-up. It proves that the baseball season is long, and some players contribute seasonally. At the end of October you can put that all in perspective.

However, I’ll stand by my original judgments about both of these players. I place a lot more faith in Daniel Nava and Xander Bogaerts for the future of the team.  Already Drew is sagging a little, and even shows uneven play at shortstop.  Napoli may fare less well against American League pitching, because they know what he likes, and he misses a lot of pitches he likes.

But Napoli showed some intestinal fortitude on Sunday, and I would be heartless to ignore it. When the season’s tab is paid in full, Napoli’s feat should not go unnoticed.