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Why Boston Red Sox Fans Should Worry About Mike Napoli's Struggles

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Why Boston Red Sox Fans Should Worry About Mike Napoli's Struggles
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Boston Red Sox have sustained an elite, balanced offense the entire season, one of the primary reasons for their success in 2013.  As a team, the Red Sox rank second in offensive WAR, second in wOBA, and second by the park-adjusted wRC+ metric. 

Indeed, there is almost no offensive category in which Boston does not find itself in the top five or 10.

However, that does not mean the Red Sox lineup is impervious, and there are some signs that might be cause for concern in October.  Perhaps the most worrisome drop-off belongs to Mike Napoli, whose bat has been erratic for months now.  Since the All-Star break, Napoli has barely been better than a replacement-level player, constantly hovering around the Mendoza line.

Napoli is not the most important bat in the lineup, and his struggles have not sunk the Sox offense yet. But digging deeper, it seems unlikely that he will be a reliable source of power in the postseason, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the order that could eventually prove fatal.

 

Right-Handed Balance

Napoli's right-handedness is an obvious and seemingly simplistic trait to point out, but it is important nonetheless.  Napoli is really the lone regular right-handed power bat the Red Sox have, though Jonny Gomes has turned in admirable work off the bench.

Indeed, Boston's offense is essentially average against left-handed pitchers, and its .313 wOBA is roughly 30 points lower than its overall mark. Compare that to Boston's league-leading .353 mark against right-handers, and a picture forms of a team vulnerable to significant platoon splits.

This season, Napoli has been of little help in reversing that trend. In fact, he actually has a lower average against lefties than righties and a 97 wRC+ facing southpaws that suggests he is below average in that regard.

It hasn't always been this way for Napoli.  He owns a .269/.375/.509 mark against lefties in his career, and an excellent 134 wRC+.  Since his debut in 2006, that .884 OPS ranks 32nd among all players with at least 700 at-bats against lefties.

And there may be hope yet for Napoli to reverse his fortunes.  He is actually making better contact this season, with a 27.5 percent line-drive rate against lefties that significantly usurps his 20.6 percent career mark.  As BrooksBaseball.net illustrates, he is whiffing less often against left-handers than he has in his career:

Napoli's 2013 rate, courtesy BrooksBaseball.net
Napoli's career rate, courtesy BrooksBaseball.net

Of course, whiffing is a part of Napoli's "three true outcomes" approach.  But this season, the strikeouts have piled up at a rate that his no longer acceptable, but rather downright alarming.

 

Strikeout Troubles

Mike Napoli is certainly no stranger to strikeouts.  Since 2007, his career 26.7-percent strikeout rate is fifth among active players with at least 3,000 at-bats.  As you might expect, that's a by-product of his hitting approach, which emphasizes patience and working the count.

But this year, his strikeout rate has soared to to 34.3 percent, while his walk rate has dropped to 10.9 percent. That 0.32 BB/K rate is the second-worst mark of Napoli's career and one of the 30 worst rates among qualified hitters. Without the high on-base percentage and home-run production (only 14 dingers), Napoli becomes little more than a rally-killer.

Middle-of-the-order bats tend to hit with runners on base or in scoring position, the exact kinds of situations in which strikeouts are most harmful.  Too often, critical situations like this have occurred, and Napoli has not even given his team a chance by putting the ball in play:

Of course, lots of power bats strike out a ton, but their power compensates for all those lost plate appearances. The increase in strikeouts has coincided with a decline in power, as Napoli's .769 OPS is well below his .849 career average. Of the Sox with at least 100 at-bats, that ranks 10th out of 12, behind legendary sluggers like Daniel Nava and Stephen Drew.

It appears all this belies Napoli's general decline. Many Sox fans feared his 5.4 WAR 2011 season was the outlier sandwiched around 2.5 and 2.0 win seasons, and it seems those skeptics are right.  Look at the graphs for his BB/K ratio and isolated power (ISO) over the past three years:

Courtesy Fangraphs.com
Courtesy Fangraphs.com

So if the Red Sox should be nervous about playing Napoli at a premium offensive position this year, what does that say about the soon-to-be 32-year-old going forward?

 

Future of 1st Base

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Could the Sox land Cuban uber prospect Jose Abreu?

When the Red Sox inked Adrian Gonzalez to a seven-year, $154 million deal back in 2011, they never imagined there would be a gaping hole at first base just 16 months later.

But that is the dilemma the Sox face next season, and things look a bit bleak at the moment. Napoli's avascular-necrosis hip condition caused him to sign an incentive-laden, one-year, $5 million pact, making him a free agent after 2013. With the effects of aging clearly taking a toll on his performance, it seems unlikely that the Sox would bring him back for anything more than what he earned this season.

And while Boston's farm system has improved tremendously the past few seasons, first base is still a bit of a black hole since the Sox sacrificed Anthony Rizzo for Gonzalez. 

Going into the season, general consensus pinned Travis Shaw as the team's top first-base prospect.  However, after an excellent 2012 that saw him post a .957 OPS at High-A Salem, Shaw has struggled in Double-A, batting just .224 with with a .745 OPS this year, via the Portland Seadogs' official site. 

If there is a bright spot, as Alex Speier and Katie Morrison of WEEI note, it's that Shaw may be the victim of bad luck, as the raw power is still present:

In a year that has featured few standout power performances in the Red Sox system...it is worth noting that, despite his struggles, Portland first baseman Travis Shaw has demonstrated an ability to put a charge in the ball. The first baseman went deep on Friday, his 14th homer of the year...with nine of his homers coming in his last 31 games. During that span, Shaw isn’t posting great numbers — a .208 average, .309 OBP albeit with a standout .537 slugging mark — but he’s walked 16 times, struck out with acceptable frequency (25 times) and seemingly has been the victim of horrific luck, as evidenced by a .178 batting average on balls in play.

But it seems highly unlikely that Shaw will be major league ready by 2014, and he is certainly not a sure-fire prospect. 

On the active roster, some have advocated for reserve Mike Carp to take over first next season. But a quick look at his righty/lefty splits shows that is probably folly. 

As a pure platoon player, Carp has only made 23 plate appearances this season against southpaws.  Though his .273 average is respectable, his power virtually disappears, as his .759 OPS and .182 ISO significantly lags behind .959 and .266 marks against righties.  Moreover, when Carp played full time for Seattle in 2012, he flopped with a .213/.312/.341 slash line and got designated for assignment.

There may be one Hail Mary play for Boston, however. Top Cuban prospect Jose Abreu recently defected, according to ESPN.com, and the 26-year-old slugger is a major league-ready bat who will receive a sizable payday.

ESPN's Jim Bowden had this to say about Abreu (subscription required):

Abreu is considered one of the best hitting prospects in the world, and last season he led Cuba's Serie Nacional in batting average and home runs. Although he will be limited to first base or designated hitter, his offensive skills will make him an All-Star.

Because he's older than 23, Abreu will not be subject to MLB's spending restrictions for international free agents, and because of the success of Puig, Cespedes and Chapman, I expect him to get a deal somewhere in the range of $54 million over six years, which would exceed Puig’s seven-year, $42 million contract.

Bowden then goes on to list the Red Sox as the second-most-likely destination for Abreu, trailing only the Miami Marlins. The Sox will certainly have the money to spend, and Abreu could be an intriguing gamble.

 

Bottom Line

First base may be a traditional source of foundational power bats, but the Red Sox have been able to get by without one so far. And the 2004 team won it all despite the 25th-best first-base production, so it's not as if this year's champion must employ Joey Votto or Chris Davis.

But it is indisputably difficult to win the World Series without much reliable production beyond the first four hitters. Depth contributors are essential to sustaining a team's success through the 162-game regular-season grind, but with the randomness of the short postseason, stars generally have a much larger impact.

Napoli does not have to carry the offense, as that burden falls to the likes of David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury. But his niche as a right-handed power bat is the rarest commodity in the Red Sox lineup, and one he has not consistently fulfilled this season. 

That may be the one ingredient missing from a truly complete offense.

 

*All stats courtesy Fangraphs.com, unless otherwise noted

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