JAWS and the 2023 Hall of Fame Ballot: Mike Napoli

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2023 BBWAA Candidate: Mike Napoli
Mike Napoli C 26.3 22.0 24.2 1125 267 .246/.346/.475 117
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

As images of baseball players engaged in off-field celebrations go, it’s tough to top that of Mike Napoli following the Red Sox’s 2013 World Series victory parade. Over the course of several hours, the burly, bearded 31-year-old slugger went on an epic pub crawl that included stops to tend bar at McGreevy’s of Boston and Daisy Buchanan’s. As widely chronicled via social media, Napoli did shots with fans while soaking in the adulation, and along the way shed his shirt for what quickly became an iconic image.

By that point, Napoli had been through a lot. He’d spent the first half-decade of his major league career (2006-10) locked in an existential position battle that resonated throughout the baseball world. Under the harsh glare of Angels manager Mike Scioscia — a two-time All-Star and two-time champion who caught nearly 1,400 games in the majors before winning the 2002 World Series as manager — the heavy-hitting Napoli battled for the starting catcher job with light-hitting but more highly-touted Jeff Mathis, whose superiority behind the plate appealed to the defense-minded skipper and highlighted the reasons why Napoli couldn’t win the job outright. Even as his own injuries and those of teammates allowed Napoli to expand his positional repertoire, he faced public criticism from his manager. “I think he’s a catcher. He thinks he’s a catcher. He needs to go out and catch like a catcher,” Scioscia said in December 2010. “That is the frustrating part with Mike. We’ve seen it when he first came up.”

That comment came just a month before Napoli was traded out of town; he wound up with the Rangers, and spent the next two years terrorizing the Angels. Upon reaching free agency, he agreed to a three-year, $39 million contract with the Red Sox, but the discovery of a degenerative hip condition forced the deal to be restructured and reduced to a single year, and ended his time behind the plate. Freed from that burden, he did nothing less than help Boston win a championship, hence his cathartic celebration.

Napoli’s major league career spanned only 12 seasons, and he made just one All-Star team. Even so, his teams reached the postseason eight times, and upon escaping Anaheim, he played in three World Series in a span of six years, establishing himself as a middle-of-the-lineup slugger and a fan favorite.

Michael Anthony Napoli was born on October 31, 1981 in Hollywood, Florida, and grew up in nearby Pembroke Pines. He was the oldest of three children born to Joe Napoli, a plumber, and Donna Rose Torres, but his parents divorced when he was young. Donna worked two jobs — as a retail store manager on weekdays and a caterer on weekends — to support the family, and later married Rick Torres, a firefighter who had two children of his own, and who became the male figure in Mike’s life.

Napoli began playing T-ball when he was five years old, and he took to it quickly. “I knew from the day he was born he would play baseball,” his mother told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Dave Brousseau in 2000. At Charles W. Flanagan High School — where he stayed despite an attempt to persuade him to transfer to private school powerhouse Westminster Academy, where Alex Rodriguez had played — Napoli won the Broward County 6A triple crown as a junior, with a .576 batting average, 14 homers, and 52 RBI. After losing 20 pounds, he not only repeated as batting and RBI champion the following year, he added a new dimension to his game by stealing 32 bases and won the Sun-Sentinel Player of the Year for 4A-5A-6A schools in addition to earning all-state honors.

Even as Napoli came out of high school, scouts weren’t sold on his catching ability, viewing him more as a corner infielder, albeit as “a dominant offensive player who can hit with power to all fields,” according to Baseball America’s draft report. “He was a man among boys,” former Angels scout Todd Claus told ESPN’s Gordon Edes in 2013, noting that even then he had “a chinstrap beard.” Napoli signed a letter of intent to Louisiana State University, but “he was no student,” as his high school coach Tyler Munro told Edes. Signability issues pushed him down to the 17th round, where the Angels drafted him. He signed for a modest $105,000 bonus.

Injuries, high strikeout rates, and defensive issues – not just his footwork but his general playability behind the plate — slowed Napoli’s climb through the minors. He played in just 10 games at Rookie-level Butte in 2000 due to a back injury, and 47 at High-A Rancho Cucamonga in ’03 due to a torn labrum in his right shoulder; by 2005, he had been diagnosed with an arthritic left shoulder as well. He hit a meaty .282/.393/.539 with 29 homers and 166 strikeouts while repeating at Rancho in 2004, which at least landed him at no. 29 on BA’s organizational Top 30; by that point Mathis, a 2001 supplemental first-round pick, was at no. 4 after a season at Double-A Arkansas. When both catchers moved up a level for 2005, Napoli hit .237/.372/.508 with 31 homers at Arkansas, trimmed his strikeout rate from 28.4% to 25.9%, and threw out 47% of would-be base thieves. But even as he climbed to no. 11 on the Angels list, BA noted he was “not polished enough defensively to warrant everyday play as a catcher” while pointing out that he led Texas League catchers in errors and passed balls.

The Angels began the 2006 season with Mathis backing up José Molina, and Napoli stashed at Triple-A Salt Lake City. When Mathis didn’t hit, the two prospects switched places. Napoli debuted on May 4 by homering off the Tigers’ Justin Verlander in his first plate appearance, and started the majority of the team’s remaining games while throwing out 31% of would-be base thieves and batting .228/.360/.455 (110 OPS+) with 16 homers and 2.6 WAR.

Napoli entered 2007 as the starter, and played regularly ahead of Molina, but a high ankle sprain and a hamstring strain limited him to just seven games in July and August; during that time, Mathis was promoted and Molina traded to the Yankees. Napoli started just nine times behind the plate in September, finishing at .247/.351/.443 (107 OPS+) with 10 homers and 1.1 WAR. He started two out of the team’s three games in the Division Series against the Red Sox, but was hitless as the team was swept.

Napoli’s offense took a step forward in 2008, as he homered 20 times in just 274 plate appearances while batting .273/.374/.586 (148 OPS+), but shoulder inflammation — which would eventually lead to an offseason surgical cleanup of his labrum and rotator cuff — knocked him out for a month. Mathis started 90 games to Napoli’s 71, though the latter made three of the four starts in a Division Series rematch against the Red Sox. He went 3-for-5 with a pair of homers off Josh Beckett in the Angels’ Game 3 win, but hitless in his other two starts.

In 2009, the Angels began expanding Napoli’s role, starting him at designated hitter 16 times and behind the plate 84 times. An impingement that slowed his recovery from surgery had something to do with, though it’s also worth noting that the timing coincided with the advent of pitch tracking, which had led to the study of catcher framing. Even the earliest public work by Dan Turkenkopf of Beyond the Box Score estimated a substantial gap (one run per 150 called pitches) between Mathis and Napoli based on partial 2007 data. Based on FanGraphs’ retroactive framing numbers for 2008-10, the gap was still significant:

Framing the Mathis/Napoli Debate
Player 2008 Innings 2008 Runs 2009 Innings 2009 Runs 2010 Innings 2010 Runs
Mathis 793.1 9.4 657.0 5.1 553.2 1.8
Napoli 625.0 -8.1 758.0 -6.4 525.0 -3.6
Dif Per 800 19.8 13.0 8.1

By Baseball Prospectus‘ more all-encompassing numbers on both the offensive and defensive sides (including not just framing but also blocking and throwing, and going back further than the PITCHf/x era using a different methodology), Napoli out-produced Mathis over the 2007-10 period when both were in the majors by a margin of 5.3 WARP (7.8 to 2.5). Even so, Sam Miller’s 2016 accounting of Scioscia’s longer-term handling of his catchers suggested that the manager came to undervalue defense in distributing his playing time, costing the Angels wins.

(Here it’s worth noting that despite the battle for playing time, Napoli and Mathis roomed together from 2007-10 and became close friends. Both understood the heightened scrutiny that came with playing under the demanding Scioscia. “I thought he was a very good defensive catcher,” Mathis told MLB.com in 2019. “But he was under a lot of pressure, because he was viewed as an offensive catcher. He really had to work at it.”)

Sticking to the period at hand, Mathis’ weakness as a hitter (58 OPS+ from 2008-10) kept Napoli in shinguards some of the time. He hit for a 120 OPS+ with 20 homers and 3.0 WAR in 2009, but went just 2-for-13 in the postseason as the Angels beat the Red Sox before falling to the Yankees in the ALCS. In 2010, after Kendrys Morales broke his leg, Napoli started more games at first base (67) than catcher (59) and set a career high in homers (26), with a 115 OPS+ and 2.0 WAR.

During the 2010-11 offseason, the Angels came up short in their pursuits of free agents Carl Crawford and Adrián Beltré. Overreacting, they traded Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera to the Blue Jays for outfielder Vernon Wells in what turned out to be a catastrophic move given the replacement-level production Wells provided at premium prices over the next two years ($44 million, zero WAR) and the extent to which catching prospect Hank Conger fell short of expectations in taking over Napoli’s playing time. Just four days after Napoli was traded to the Blue Jays, he was flipped to the Rangers for reliever Frank Francisco, meaning that he could come back to haunt his former team in the AL West race.

And he did. In 16 games against the Angels in 2011, Napoli hit .356/.433/.763 with six homers as the Rangers took the division with 96 wins, 10 more than the Angels. Splitting his time between catcher (57 starts), first base (27 starts) and DH (18 starts), Napoli hit an ungodly .320/.414/.631 for a 178 OPS+ and a career-high 5.5 WAR. Between the demands of catching and a three-week absence due to an oblique strain, he made just 432 PA, 70 short of qualifying for the batting title, but among AL players with at least 400 PA, nobody had a higher slugging percentage, and only Miguel Cabrera had a higher OPS+ (180).

In the postseason, Napoli continued to rake (.328/.414/.500), producing several big hits along the way. In the Division Series against the Rays, he hit a game-tying two-run single off James Shields in the fourth inning of Game 2, and then a go-ahead two-run homer off David Price in the seventh inning of Game 3. In the ALCS against the Tigers, he drove in the first of four 11th-inning runs in Game 4 with a single off Jose Valverde. In the World Series against the Cardinals, his two-run homer off Chris Carpenter accounted for the Rangers’ only runs in their Game 1 loss, but his three-run homer off Mitchell Boggs accounted for the bulk of their scoring in a Game 4 win, and his two-run double off Marc Rzepczynski provided the margin of victory in Game 5. He got on base five times in the epic Game 6, but didn’t score once; the Rangers lost both that game and Game 7.

Napoli continued to punish the Angels (.442/.567/.904 in 67 PA) in 2012 and made his only All-Star team that year, more on his momentum from the previous year than for his performance (.227/.343/.469, 24 homers), which actually improved in the second half despite his missing five weeks with a quad strain. The Rangers qualified for the AL Wild Card but lost.

With that, Napoli reached free agency. Recruited by former Angels teammate John Lackey, with help from Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia, he agreed to a three-year, $39 million deal with the Red Sox, but during his physical, the team discovered he had avascular necrosis in both hips, a degenerative disorder that kills bone tissue, and that ended the football career of Bo Jackson. After seven weeks of consultation with doctors and the beginning of a medical regimen to address his condition (which, thankfully, was asymptomatic), Napoli’s contract was restructured as a one-year, $5 million guarantee plus a maximum of $8 million in incentives based on days on the active roster and playing time.

The diagnosis ended the 31-year-old Napoli’s career as a catcher, but he stayed healthy in 2013, playing regularly at first base and hitting .259/.360/.482 (128 OPS+) with 23 homers and 3.7 WAR. The Red Sox, who had plummeted to 69-93 in 2012 after missing the playoffs by a single game the year before, rebounded to win the AL East at 97-65. Napoli went just 2-for-13 in both the Division Series against the Rays and the World Series against the Cardinals, but hit .300/.333/.700 in 20 PA in the ALCS against the Tigers. Most notably, his seventh-inning solo homer off Verlander accounted for the only run of Game 3, and he collected three hits, including a solo homer, off Aníbal Sánchez in Boston’s Game 5 win.

The Red Sox won the World Series in six games, and on November 2, following the city’s celebratory parade, Napoli went on his infamous walkabout. Six weeks later, he re-signed with the Red Sox on a two-year, $32 million deal; having maxed out the bonuses in his 2013 contract, he actually came out ahead despite the hiccup of the physical. His performance in 2014 took a hit, however, as minor injuries — back, knee, toe, and most notably a dislocated left ring finger, suffered while jamming it in a headfirst slide in mid-April — limited him to 119 games. A late-season slump knocked his OPS+ down to 120; he didn’t get a hit after September 8, playing only five more games as the Red Sox sank to 71 wins.

In the wake of offseason surgery to correct sleep apnea, Napoli struggled mightily in 2015, hitting just .207/.307/.386 before the Red Sox traded him back to the Rangers in an August 7 waiver deal. His bat perked up post-trade (.295/.396/.513), but he was a nonfactor during the Rangers Division Series loss to the Blue Jays. Again a free agent, the now 34-year-old Napoli inked a one-year, $7 million-plus-incentives deal with Cleveland. Though he hit a career-high 34 homers, his 106 OPS+ and subpar defense yielded just 1.0 WAR. He scuffled throughout the postseason (.173/.232/.288 with 21 strikeouts in 56 PA); his RBI double and solo homer off the Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman in a Game 3 ALCS win was just about his only notable contribution even as Cleveland took its quest for a championship all the way to the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series before losing to the Cubs.

Just before pitchers and catchers reported in 2017, Napoli signed an $8.5 million deal to return to Texas, but the third time was hardly the charm. Though he hit 29 homers, he slipped to an 80 OPS+ and -0.3 WAR, and didn’t play after September 14 due to a leg injury. He went back to Cleveland via a minor league deal in 2018, opted out at the end of spring training in an attempt to find a major league roster spot, and when he didn’t, returned and accepted an assignment to Triple-A Columbus. Alas, he went 1-for-24 in five games before tearing his ACL and the meniscus in his right knee, an injury that ended his season; in December of that year, he formally retired. Prior to the 2020 season, he joined the coaching staff of the Cubs — managed by 2013-14 Red Sox teammate David Ross — as their quality assurance coach, and since the start of last season has served as their first base coach.

In retrospect it’s fair to wonder what kind of career Napoli might have had if the Angels had moved him out from behind the plate earlier, as the Blue Jays did with Jayson Werth (not that they reaped the rewards). Perhaps he would have steered clear of the injuries that shortened his career, and we might have been spared the polarizing debates that surrounded the Angels’ positional battle. Flags fly forever, however, and from this vantage, I doubt Napoli would change much about a career where he ultimately triumphed.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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1 year ago

As someone currently stuck on the couch after my first of two hip replacements (at 30 years old) due to AVN, I’m blown away that Napoli was able to play as effectively as he was able to after the diagnosis. If he’s managed to make it this long without needing replacements, he’s quite lucky that the degeneration has been fairly slow.

AVN typically comes about in athletes who manage joint inflammation with prednisone or other corticosteroids, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it developed in the course of Napoli dealing with another unrelated injury.