Mike Napoli may lack the legendary clutch performance of a David Ortiz, the catalytic persona of a Dustin Pedroia or the hype and upside of a Xander Bogaerts. But as the Boston Red Sox continue their march toward .500, it's becoming increasingly clear that Napoli is the glue that keeps Boston's lineup together.
When you take a deeper look at the value that Napoli provides, the Red Sox may want to keep it that way for several seasons to come.
After their first 33 games played, the Red Sox sit at 16-17 and rank as the 14th-best offense in the league with 137 runs scored. They're hitting .245/.338/.383 as a team, are just 17th in homers with 27, and are third-to-last in steals with 11. This is in stark contrast to the team that won the World Series a year ago on the back of a phenomenal offense that finished first in baseball in runs, OBP, OPS, doubles and stolen-base percentage.
The Red Sox knew that their offense would take a step back when they lost Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Drew. Their stated goal this offseason was to assemble a group that could finish as a top-five offensive team, rather than one that would top the league yet again.
To be fair to the current iteration of the Red Sox, that's a goal that's still quite feasible. This is a talented club with the potential for above-average offensive production at most positions, and it's still a team that can hurt opposing pitchers with the long ball and can find the soft underbelly of most teams' bullpens—middle relief—by seeing a ton of pitches from starters.
Yet there's no question that this year's lineup is shallower than many we've seen in Boston in year's past, and that places Napoli in a position of even greater importance. He's no longer just a right-handed power bat used to extend the middle of the order—he's now one of the two or three most important hitters in the Red Sox lineup.
Fortunately for Boston, the 32-year-old has looked up to the task so far during his Red Sox career.
According to FanGraphs, Napoli had the second-best year of his career in 2013, generating 3.9 fWAR thanks to a combination of power, patience and surprisingly good defense at first base. Last season, Napoli hit .259/.360/.482 with 23 homers, finishing as the seventh-most productive first baseman in the game. He struck out in a whopping 32.4 percent of his PA—the highest rate of his career—but also walked 12.6 percent of the time, which is right in line with his career norm.
This season, Napoli is hitting .288/.415/.477 with a 24.4 K percentage, a 16.3 BB percentage and five homers through 135 PA, which actually puts him on track to improve upon his excellent 2013 season. He's in the midst of a 27-game on-base streak and has been the rock of a Red Sox lineup that's seen several of its key contributors miss time or struggle early.
Such numbers are useful benchmarks by which to measure Napoli's performance, to be sure, but they don't get to the heart of the value Napoli provides. To fully understand why Napoli is so important to the Red Sox, we need to look to a statistic that's long been favored in Boston: pitchers per plate appearance (P/PA).
Napoli is currently fourth in the majors in P/PA with 4.45, trailing only Carlos Santana, Mike Trout and Adam Dunn, courtesy of ESPN. Last season, he finished first in the majors in that metric with a P/PA of 4.59. Napoli makes pitchers work relentlessly, which, along with his power, make his high strikeout rates and his fluctuating batting average much easier pills to swallow.
This is right in line with a team philosophy that has Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia and Jackie Bradley Jr. all in the top 50 in the league for P/PA, with David Ortiz not too far behind. Making pitchers work hard is the best way to make up the lost offensive ground that the Red Sox have suffered in the wake of losing so many talented offensive players.
In years past, the Red Sox have had prominent names like Manny Ramirez, Jason Bay and Adrian Gonzalez support Ortiz in the middle of the lineup. In the near future, it's quite possible that Bogaerts will fill that role as he continues to adjust to life in the major leagues.
Yet for the remainder of 2014 and the season to follow, it should be Napoli who provides the daunting right-handed presence in the middle of the order that the Red Sox need. He may not be the type of generational talent Sox fans are used to supporting in the cleanup role, but he's cementing himself as a leading character in this chapter of Red Sox history nonetheless.