The fun thing about reading and writing about baseball in April is that the majority of the content is going to have the same basic theme. That theme, of course, is "It’s only April! Stop worrying so much you nincompoop!" More often than not, these themes are correct. We just don’t have a large enough of a sample to draw any significant conclusions. However, that does not mean we don’t have enough of a sample to at least recognize troubling trends. We’ve seen plenty of out-of-nowhere Aprils (either good or bad) that have continued through an entire season.
All of this brings me to Mike Napoli. Any objective analysis of his season so far is going to come to the same conclusion: He’s been terribad. He’s hitting .162/.269/.250. He has a 49 wRC+, a 47 OPS+ and a .214 TAv. Those numbers are objectively horrible. Still, as we always need to point out this time of year, we’re dealing with the aforementioned tiny sample. So, is this terrible start all small sample noise, or are there some trends we should be worrying about?
The first thing you’re going to notice when you look at Napoli’s stat line will be his horrible results on balls in play as he’s currently sporting a .196 BABIP. Now, a low BABIP isn’t necessarily all bad luck. If you’re hitting poorly you’re just not going to rack up a lot of hits. With that being said, a .196 mark is unsustainably low for any major-league hitter. We can safely say at least a little bit of his poor performance is bad luck, but I think we knew that already.
Looking a little deeper and we notice that he’s failing to hit for any power thus far despite that being his offensive calling card throughout his career. Lucky for him and the rest of the Red Sox, there are plenty of signs that he will break out of this power slump. Napoli is still hitting the ball in the air roughly as much as he always has, they just aren’t leaving the park just yet. His 4.3 percent home-run-to-fly-ball ratio is a full six percentage points below the current league average, and it’s fifteen percentage points below his career average. That would make sense if he was hitting the ball weakly on a consistent basis, but the numbers say that’s not the case.
His average fly ball is traveling a shade over 297 feet, which ranks 41st out of 212 batters and is more or less consistent with his totals the last three years. MLB Advanced Media’s new Statcast data has allowed us (or more specifically, Baseball Savant) to track how hard players are hitting the ball in terms of exit velocity. Of the 179 players who qualified for this leaderboard, Napoli’s 91.71 mph exit velocity is tied for 33rd. So, he’s hitting the ball far and he’s hitting the ball hard, they just aren’t going over the fence right now. There’s enough evidence here to be confident that’ll start happening soon.
Beyond the contact, he’s also avoiding an approach at the plate that looks like a struggling player. When a hitter is in a bad way, we often see them swinging at everything trying to get that big slump-busting hit. Napoli, on the other hand, has remained extremely patient throughout this slow start. His walk rate is a stellar 12.8 percent, while his strike rate is an excellent (for him) 20.5 percent. The last time he had a K-rate that low was during his bonkers 2011 season in Texas. He’s cut way down on swings on pitches out of the zone, and he’s making very little contact on those pitches when he does swing. Now, his swinging-strike-rate is still at his career norms so that K-rate will likely climb back up, but the overall plate discipline numbers don’t suggest he’s trying to do anything differently at the plate.
Photo Credit: Maddie Meyer-Getty Images
Really, the only alarming abnormality I can find with Napoli is that he’s rolling the ball over too often when he’s pulling the ball. Heading into today, 70.6 percent of the balls he has pulled this year have been hit on the ground, per Fangraphs. Of course, we’re talking about 17 plate appearances here, so it’s clearly not something to get worked up over. It’s really the only explanation for his lack of power, though. Once he normalizes this, things should get a lot better.
Sometimes you see a player struggle so badly in the first few weeks of the season that you start to notice some trends that point to the struggles turning into a long-term issue. That hasn’t been the case with Mike Napoli. He’s keeping his approach at the plate and he’s continuing to hit the ball extremely hard and far. It’s impossible to be completely sure about anything in baseball, but based on the numbers, I’m as close to sure as possible that Napoli will begin to hit. And soon.