What Are the Rangers Getting by Signing Mike Napoli?
The Texas Rangers have found their first baseman for the 2017 season, and it’s a familiar face. After spending a season with the Cleveland Indians, Mike Napoli will join the Rangers for the third time on a one-year deal with $8.5 million, with a club option for 2018.
He wasn’t the only free agent signing of the day, as the New York Yankees inked a deal with another slugging first baseman in Chris Carter. This deal was also for one year, but for far less of a guarantee ($3.5 million).
These two moves are interesting because they're very similar players -- power guys who pile up strikeouts and play poor defense.
Carter could argue that he deserves the contract Napoli received considering he hit seven more home runs, posted a superior Isolated Slugging Percentage (.277 to .226), slugging percentage (.499 to .465), and wOBA (.346 to .343) last season in one fewer plate appearance, and is also five years younger.
Despite paying $5 million more for a similar type of player, what exactly are the Rangers getting in Napoli?
Napoli posted career highs in home runs (34), runs scored (92), and RBI (101) in 2016. Those are great “counting” stats, but let’s dig a little deeper.
His .226 ISO was his highest since 2012, and both his .343 wOBA and 113 wRC+ were above league average (.318 and 97, respectively). Napoli actually had the same wOBA as Bryce Harper, although that's probably more telling about Harper's season than anything else.
Napoli's hard-hit rate of 36.7% was two percentage points better than his career mark, and his 12.1% walk rate was almost 4 percentage points higher than last season's league average (8.2%).
Despite playing in his age-34 season, Napoli showed he still has the ability to drive the ball out of the park. Unfortunately for the Rangers, that's pretty much all he does well and where the majority of his value is derived, as Napoli slashed just .239/.335/.465 in 645 plate appearances.
The Bad and the Ugly
Napoli's pop carried some significant downside. His 30.1% strikeout rate was the third-highest in baseball and significantly worse than his career mark of 26.5% entering the season. This could be attributed to his increase in pitches swung at outside the strike zone (O-Swing%). Napoli owned a career 23.7 O-Swing% going into 2016 and saw this total increase to 26.4% last season.
Although his hard-hit rate in 2016 was above his career average, his soft-hit rate also increased. At just 15.0% entering the 2016 season, this total jumped to 19.3% last year. Chasing bad pitches is an easy way to strikeout a ton and hit balls weakly when contact is made.
Napoli split his time with Cleveland between first base and designated hitter, but his performance in the field suggests he should no longer be out there. Among first baseman to play at least 850 innings in the field last season, Napoli ranked fourth-worst with a -6.1 UZR/150.
It's possible that last season was a fluke -- Napoli posted a top-5 UZR/150 among first baseman in 2014 and 2015 -- but the Rangers should not be expecting the Napoli of old, considering FanGraphs had him as the game's eighth-worst defender in baseball.
Between generating value from mostly one avenue (power) and posting horrendous defensive metrics, it's easy to see why Napoli tallied just a 1.0 fWAR, or the exact same total Madison Bumgarner recorded last season -- as a hitter.
Outlook for this Season
At this point in his career, we know the type of hitter Napoli is. He's capable of leaving the yard every time he steps to the plate, but it comes at the expense of basically everything else. He's an all-or-nothing kind of hitter, as 82.7% of his hits last season were either singles or home runs.
However, power is a commodity in today's game and Napoli shouldn't lose much value with the move to Texas.
Just two of Napoli's home runs last season would not have been taters in Texas, according to ESPN's Home Run Tracker.
His current average draft position in fantasy baseball drafts is 224.98 (18th first baseman) according to NFBC, which is a point where you're taking a flier on a player anyways. Unless you're desperate for home runs, it's worth looking into someone else with more upside.
The Rangers are likely hopeful Napoli gives them more than strikeouts and home runs, but they shouldn't count on it based on his recent history.