Mike Napoli: A Tale of Expectations

If you watched August 5th’s Astros-Sox game, you will probably agree with the statement that Mike Napoli sucks. You watched him whiff a couple times at high fastballs instead of letting them go for a walk, effectively ending the inning for the Red Sox and allowing the Astros to head into the 9th with a 2-0 lead intact. Furthermore, you might be a bit angry
that John Lackey had left the game after 6 IP, with 10K and only those two earned runs (one of which given up on a suicide squeeze as the Astros continued to cash in on playing small ball), and the Red Sox had given him no run support at all. Emotions were running high after last night’s loss (hell, I expected yet another sweep of the Astros) because, of course, these are your 2013 Boston Red Sox, who are now expected to make a great run at the AL East title and perhaps even a pennant and the World Series.

Let’s think back to March for a minute though. Back then, the expectations for the Red Sox were bleak, but realistic. If you followed the team back then, you understood that the expectations were something like a 75-80 win year, missing the playoffs because of a good division led by the Blue Jays after all their free agent signings (hah!), and mostly banking on young prospects like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts to get ready to dominate the major leagues by 2015. The line was essentially: 2015 or bust, that’s when the Red Sox will be contenders again.

Here we are though, and the date is August 6th. We’ve made it into the dog days of summer and the Red Sox are very much to our surprise and delight contenders in the AL East, with a half game lead over the Rays and 93.9% chance of making the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus. We’ve been here before though, and we watched when Papelbon blew a save against the Orioles on September 28th, 2011. This was a season where we expected to make the playoffs, and by a fairly wide margin. The Red Sox’ playoff odds going into September 2011 were something on the order of 99+%, and they proceeded to go 7 and 20 in September and miss the playoffs. As Red Sox fans, we’re used to being wary about our expectations, as teams in the past have had a tendency to let them down. The 2004 team had really crushed our expectations after a 19-8 loss to the Yankees in game 4 of the ALCS, only to pick them right back up again after what was arguably the greatest comeback in the history of professional sports. Imagine if the Sox had lost that World Series to the Cardinals though. Our expectations, after having been crushed, then picked right back up, would have been absolutely annihilated. The team of destiny, after having defeated the Evil Empire in the greatest of comebacks, losing the World Series?

The point I’m trying to make here though, is that as Sox fans we have some work to do in managing our expectations. It wasn’t unreasonable to expect the 2011 Red Sox to make the playoffs, but it is unreasonable to expect Mike Napoli to strike out less than 30% of the time. The Mike Napoli that we signed this offseason struck out 30% of the time in 2012, and provided the Rangers with 2.0 WAR (according to Fangraphs). So far in 2013, Napoli has provided 2.1 WAR for the Sox, and his K% is hovering around 33.6%. We’re getting exactly the production we expected for the $13MM the Front Office thinks Napoli is worth. He’s having approximately the same year he had for the Rangers in 2012, with some exceptions: he isn’t walking quite as much, he’s struck out more, and his ISO is down to .195 from the .241 it was last year. Despite these exceptions, his OPS, wOBA, batting average, and wRC among other statistics are pretty much exactly where they were last year. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Mike Napoli the Red Sox paid for in the offseason. Despite a few admittedly frustrating outings of late and the fact that Napoli may be chasing the all-time record for Ks in a season, he’s producing exactly as we should have expected, and there’s still time for him to even exceed expectations. Mike Napoli’s going to be just fine this season, he’s just probably going to strike out a few more times.

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