Mike Napoli Vs. Adrian Gonzalez

Ezra Shaw

Mike Napoli will replace Adrian Gonzalez at first base next season, but will he measure up to Gonzo?

The Red Sox were able to rid themselves of some pretty dreadful contracts this past season thanks to the trade with the Dodgers, but that financial freedom had a cost and that cost was Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez had an off-year in 2012, posting career worst on-base and slugging numbers thanks to a terrible start to the season, but he still managed to be 15% better than league average at the plate and he still gave the Red Sox elite defense at first base. His seven year/ $157M contract is still a bargain considering the ten year/$240M deal that Albert Pujols got from the Angels or the nine year $214M deal Detroit gave Prince Fielder. Even with his production beginning to wane, Adrian Gonzalez’s production is still a difficult player to replace.

Boston has chosen to sign Mike Napoli to play first base in place of Gonzo, giving him a three year/ $39M deal. Team building is not so simple that Napoli alone needs to replace the production that Gonzalez gave Boston, but it is worth looking at what the Red Sox can expect from their new first baseman as it compares to what they gave up when they traded Gonzalez.

For their careers, Gonzalez and Napoli have been surprisingly close in offensive production. Napoli is about seven months older than Gonzalez but while Gonzo played some in the majors in 2004 and 2005 both became full-time players in 2006. Because Napoli was a catcher (and in part because Mike Scioscia hated him as a catcher), he has nearly half as many total plate appearances as Gonzalez, but on a 162 game average, Napoli has hit 33 home runs, walked 70 times and driven in 85 runs with a 259/.356/.507 batting line while Gonzo has averaged 29 home runs, 103 RBIs, 73 walks and a .294/.371/.507 batting line. They are very different hitters in some respects. Gonzalez makes a good deal more contact, as his advantage in batting average suggests and Napoli is very prone to strike outs; he has a career rate of 25.4% and he topped 30% last season. This compares poorly to Gonzo’s 17.7% career rate, however, Napoli has tempered that rise in strike outs by being even more discerning in the batter’s box. His 13.4% walk rate last year was more than double Gonzo 6.1% rate last year (a shocking career low for him). Overall, the style might be very different, but the result is very close. By weighted Runs Created Plus, Napoli has been 28% better than average in his career and Gonzalez has been 33% better than average and they are even closer in the past three years, with Napoli at 135 wRC+ and Gonzo at 137. Both players are still close to their prime and both have shown some signs of decline, but there is no reason to project them much differently in the 2013 season.

The bigger difference between the two is likely to come on the defensive side. Adrian Gonzalez is an elite defensive first baseman. By Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) he has average 4.5 runs saved per 150 games. Total Zone sees him saving eight runs a year. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) credits him with close to ten runs a year saved. Napoli is not going to be that kind of defensive player. He was never well-regarded as a defensive catcher and while first base is a considerably less complex defensive position, the early indications point to Napoli being an average defender. He has 1040 innings at first base in his career, all of which have come in the last three seasons. In that small sample, he is -3.4 below average per 150 games by UZR, -1 run below average by Total Zone and exactly average by DRS. It best to regress these numbers some and in doing that, we get the picture of an average defender. It is certainly possible that more regular work at the position could help to make Napoli a plus defender, but he almost certainly will not approach Gonzalez’s levels of defensive value.

Napoli gives the Red Sox a positional freedom that Gonzalez did not. Should they need Napoli to catch, he can handle limited work behind the plate. Boston tried Gonzalez in right-field some over the past two seasons, primarily as a way to keep David Ortiz or Kevin Youkilis in the line up, but Gonzo could never really fit anywhere but at first. This is not the easy thing to put a value on, either in terms of runs or wins, but it is an asset, particularly with David Ortiz still around.

Mike Napoli alone replaces all but approximately 10-12 runs (or approximately 1 Win Above Replacement) of overall production that the Red Sox might have expected from Gonzalez. He also costs around $8M less in each of the next three seasons and will not factor into the Red Sox plans after that. With wins valued around $5M per WAR, the difference in cost is more than enough to offset the difference in production. If it were not for Gonzalez bizarre 2012 season, Napoli would like be considered the bigger risk, but Gonzalez raised enough questions last year to even the scales in that respect. It is possible that Napoli is the better player from now on, but it is unlikely. However, the Red Sox are likely to be a better team with Napoli, thanks and the added flexibility he gives them, both on the field and in the bank.

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