One of my favorite articles written in the past few years comes, not surprisingly, from Joe Posnanski. In The Hall of Could Have Been, Joe discusses several players who might be described as "alternate universe" Hall of Famers - guys who might be in the Hall today if their careers had taken slightly different turns. He leaves out discussion of guys whose career was cut short by injury or interrupted by war, and focuses on those players who just didn't catch their breaks.
Some were obvious - Bert Blyleven's case, for example, and he fortunately did finally gain induction this year. Fred Lynn's statistical dropoff after leaving Boston has also been much-discussed. Others, less so. The Matt Stairs reference really piqued my interest at the time. His career numbers were so far short of a Hall of Famer, I'd never thought of him that way. I discussed this in an earlier post, and it's worth pointing out that Stairs' career home run rate was higher than that of Jim Rice.
In the last few months, while he was dominating the American League, I thought about Mike Napoli. I mentioned that in my World Series preview. With his performance the last two nights, Napoli stands a great chance of winning the World Series MVP Award if the Rangers hold on to win. In light of these occurrences, I'd like to make a bold pronouncement.
If he hadn't spent his 20's playing for a manager that didn't value his offense, Mike Napoli would be headed for the Hall of Fame.
Who are the best hitting catchers of all time? Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench and Mike Piazza. (Josh Gibson, too, but we don't have enough statistical information on him). Through age 29, Berra homered once every 21.9 at bats, Bench every 19.3, Piazza every 15.6, playing in the greatest offensive era of all time. Mike Napoli? At 15.7, he is the slightest tick behind Piazza, a player with similar defensive difficulties to Napoli who nevertheless got a chance to play because, well, you'd either have to be an idiot or Mike Scioscia to not want a guy who could be a reasonable facsimile of a catcher and hit a home run once every 15.6 at bats. Sure, Piazza hit for a much higher average than Napoli, and Berra and Bench were vastly superior defensive players. But it's not like those three are borderline Hall of Fame guys. Bench was elected, on 96.4% of ballots cast, in his first year of eligibility. Berra had to wait until year two, because voters in the 1960's and 70's did things like that - Joe Dimaggio didn't even get in on his first year. Piazza might have to deal with ridiculous steroid allegations, but on the numbers alone, he'd be in the Hall upon eligibility in 2013.
Let's look at Napoli's career numbers:
What do you notice? First off, the guy homers a LOT. He also strikes out a lot, leading to some batting averages that some people wouldn't be thrilled with, but overall that's pretty amazing production from the catching position.
For comparison's sake, let's take a look at the guy Mike Scioscia often preferred to play, Jeff Mathis.
Mathis gets bagged on a lot. I'm sure he's a nice guy and a fine defensive catcher, but the guy is an automatic out. It's hard to picture any manager other than Mike Scioscia giving a hitter like this half the playing time over a five year period. I'm not sure how bad Napoli would have to be defensively and how good Mathis would have to be to make up for the difference in their offensive production. I'm pretty sure it would involve Mathis framing every single pitch so that Angel pitchers never threw a ball, and Napoli using the Bob Uecker knuckleball approach on every single pitch, simply waiting until it stopped rolling to pick it up to toss it back to the pitcher. Even then, it would be close. If Napoli has a lower batting average than you'd like, how can you take a guy who has a lower career OBP than Napoli's batting average? The difference has become more pronounced in the last two years, with Mathis compiling an OPS+ of exactly 37 in both seasons. I'm not the biggest plan of OPS+, but THIRTY-SEVEN? Over 499 plate appearances? In his last 499 plate appearances, Mike Napoli has 33 home runs! His home run total is almost as high as Mathis's OPS+! These numbers are mind boggling.
So, let's move to an alternate universe. One in which Mike Napoli is not within the clutches of Mike Scioscia, and his manager instead notices that he's managing the best power hitting catcher in the world. Said manager gives Napoli 550 plate appearances per year. Let's recalculate his stats, based on that, shall we? I've left his rookie 2006 season intact, and pro-rated every season since.
Note: Because of rounding, some of the calculated seasonal rate stats will vary slightly from what they were in reality.
Hmmm. We now have a player who has seasons of 40 and 38 homers, twice has 90+ RBI, and has 50 extra base hits for four consecutive years. Let's compare that to some other Hall of Fame catchers through their age 29 seasons.
Unsurprisingly, Napoli is second in slugging percentage. Perhaps more suprisingly, he's also second in on-base percentage, assisted by a comparatively high walk rate. It should be noted that Bench, Piazza, Carter and Berra have a sizable lead in counting stats, even over alternate universe Napoli, simply because they got earlier starts. All except Piazza were big prospects (especially Bench), and Piazza got immediate playing time once he made it to the big leagues.
So, I decided to take the our alternate universe Mike Napoli and calculate some of his similarity scores based on the baseball-reference.com version. Here's what I came up with for players through age 29.
Note: These may be incomplete, since I was running through the players based on the similarity scores of other guys. There were about 100 players that I calculated similarity scores for, and probably 100 more that I looked through. Least similar player that I ran a score for? Bobby Doerr.
1. Javy Lopez (919)
2. Gabby Hartnett* (907)
3. Charles Johnson (905)
4. Carlton Fisk* (904)
5. Matt Nokes (886)
6. Gus Traindos (885)
7. Toddy Hundley (8801)
8. Del Crandall (881)
9. Gene Tenace (876)
10. Ramon Hernandez (876)
Ok - so of the top 10 comparable players, only two are Hall of Famers. Interesting to note, though, that these comparability scores are all so far off. Of this group, only Lopez had a home run rate better than every 20 at bats. Napoli, of course, is under 16. Also, I don't care for how B-R uses batting average, rather than OBP, in their calculation. Let's swap that out.
1. Gabby Hartnett* (929)
2. Carlton Fisk* (921)
3. Javier Lopez (919)
4. Victor Martinez (890)
5. Charles Johnson (887)
6. Gene Tenace (885)
7. Earl Battey (867)
8. Todd Hundley (862)
9. Gus Triandos (859)
10. Mike Piazza^ (855)
*Dave Nilsson rated an 898 on the first list, and a 910 on the second, if you put his position as a catcher. He only played about 1/2 his time up to his age 29 season as a catcher, and very little in the last few years. I decided to use a weighted position scale, which dropped him out of the top 10, but it's likely that some would include him.
So we lose Nokes, Crandall, and Hernandez and replace them with Martinez, Battey and Piazza. Hartnett and Fisk move up to 1-2. The underrated Tenace moves up to 6th. This is a pretty impressive group of comparables. Among these players, only Piazza has more home runs. Only Piazza and Hartnett have a higher SLG.
To conclude, while Alternate Universe Mike Napoli isn't quite a slam dunk "I'm only 29 and I'm surely headed to the Hall of Fame" case that Johnny Bench was, his career lines up nicely with some guys who did make it. Real-life Mike Napoli has no such luck.
Still, out of Mike Scioscia's doghouse, Napoli has gotten a real opportunity to shine. Again, the power hasn't been a surprise - he's always hit for power. Arguably more rewarding has been the plaudits Napoli has earned on defense. Most metrics seem to agree with the Ranger coaching staff that Napoli has been improved behind the plate. And for Scioscia, shouldn't that be more damning than anything else? I mean, it's one thing to overemphasize defense over offense - it's quite another to be considered a master instructor, and than have a former player improve mightily from the moment he escapes. If Scioscia's tyranny kept Napoli out of the Hall of Fame, it's fair to imagine that Napoli's emergence might do the same to Scioscia - once considered one of the best managers in the business, his reputation has taken a hit this year.
Tables were made using TABLEIZER!