Catching Quandary: Should Mike Napoli Return As a Starter for the Angels?

Johnathan KronckeCorrespondent ISeptember 20, 2009

ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 27:  Mike Napoli #44 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim walks back to home plate against the Cleveland Indians at Angel Stadium on July 27, 2009 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

This year, Joe Mauer is making every other catcher in the American League look bad by comparison.

But right now, Mike Napoli doesn't need any help with that.

The starting backstop for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim has been amazingly inconsistent all season long, which begs the question: Who will fill that role in Anaheim come 2010?

On the surface, Napoli's numbers don't look too shabby. He is currently hitting .267 with 18 home runs and 51 RBI in 106 games. 

Not bad, considering his position. Most catchers—aside from Mauer, that is—are not offensive dynamos, so Napoli's production actually appears to be quite respectable.

It is only upon closer inspection that his season falls apart.

Napoli is as streaky a hitter as they come. Like a manic depressive with a bat, he goes through incredible highs and lows at the plate.

In June alone, he hit .362, and by Aug. 18 he had pulled his season average up to .300, rounding out a spectacular Angels lineup in which all nine starters were either at or over the .300 mark.

Since that time, however, Napoli has been in a dismal 6-for-60 slide and his average has steadily dropped by nearly 40 points.

His home run on Saturday night against the Texas Rangers was his first in nearly a month.

If that weren't enough, his fielding has also become more than a little suspect as of late.

The Rangers stole three bases off Napoli in Saturday's contest. Two of those runners would later score from second on fluky, infield dribblers that would have otherwise only resulted in runners at first and third.

Napoli has allowed 70 stolen bases on the season while gunning down just 22 percent of would-be thieves. 

He's also made seven errors, either on pitches he failed to block or balls he misfired through the infield, and now he seems to be struggling to call games effectively. 

A lot can be said about this statistic, but the fact is the Angels' team ERA is over a run higher when Napoli is behind the plate as compared to his roommate and counterpart, Jeff Mathis.

Some blame it on the pitchers each has had to catch. Mathis mainly works with Jered Weaver and John Lackey, two former All-Stars, while Nap has guided most of the rookie hurlers this season along with the other starters.

Whatever the case, the numbers don't lie.

Mathis has also made three fewer errors and is throwing out base-stealers at a 25 percent clip, just slightly edging out the starter Napoli.

Unfortunately, the Angels' backup catcher leaves a great deal to be desired as well.

Mathis is getting the job done defensively—manager Mike Scioscia sounds like he's about ready to adopt him—but his offense is, well, offensive.

Hitting just .210 this season, Mathis has never finished higher than .211 in any full year in the bigs. He's also struck out 70 times in only 214 at-bats in 2009.

Put Mathis and Napoli together and you've got the ideal catcher. Separately, however, each has all the necessary qualifications to be great a sub off the bench.

One is a defensive whiz who smothers everything in the dirt and calls a great game, a perfect replacement in close, late-inning situations. 

The other has only a passable glove, but massive power potential and occasionally comes up with the clutch hit to drive home the game-winning run. 

What, then, will the Angels do about their catching quandary?

When he gets hot, Napoli can mash with the best of them and is a force to be reckoned with in the lineup. The problem is he's never been able to sustain his swing.

The only thing the Angels can count on Napoli's offense for is to be unaccountable.

Mathis, on the other hand, has been a model of consistency at the plate. It's just that he's consistently terrible.

It may be time for the Angels to go in a new direction at the catching position.

If Napoli could improve his defense a little and get his swing on track, he would absolutely have the starting job locked down.

There's nothing wrong with a .267 average out of the catcher's spot, but his violent shifts between blazing hot and ice cold that have produced that average are killing this team.

Napoli's name has already been mentioned in trade rumors this season, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to hear that kind of talk resume in the off-season. 

In truth, keeping either catcher as a backup is fine. The Angels aren't so desperate that they need to dump both Napoli and Mathis.

But at this point, neither is ideally suited for the starting job.

No one is expecting to see a Joe Mauer behind the plate in Anaheim, but another Benji Molina isn't too much to ask.