Currently, the starting catching position is vacant. Russell Martin has done a valiant job handling those duties over the past two years and was a bit unlucky with the stick this year. Over his career, he’s been a player who can add some offense, but more importantly handle the pitching staff and keep opponents’ running game in check. Now, in steps the contender for this position, free agent Mike Napoli. The former Angel and Ranger, comes into the offseason among the top power-hitting catchers in the league. It is one aspect of his game he’ll market in order to receive his big payday.
There’s a caveat to marketing Napoli as a catcher, as his representation so badly wants, and that is he also plays first base and obviously DH, which will drive down his contract numbers in terms of money. Napoli, 31, wants to stay behind the plate in order to cash in, but long term that’s not where he’s going to play for any team. It’s a smart angle to take, but one that won’t come to fruition as much as he would like. So it comes down to this — take fewer years and a higher dollar amount to stay a catcher, or sign a long-term deal for less money and remain defensively flexible.
Looking at his numbers over the past few seasons, there’s good and bad. For instance, the guy can mash with the best of them, as evident by his nasty ISO numbers (.241 in 2012 and .312 in 2011). Also, he knows how to take a walk (13 percent walk rate), which plays well in how the Yankees want their hitters to approach each at-bat. Meanwhile, over his career he’s been a .259/.356/.507 hitter with nice peripherals (.371 wOBA and 128 wRC+). However, one particular nasty mark on his hitting is his propensity for striking out, as 30 percent of his plate appearances end in a K in the scorer’s book. That’s worse than Curtis Granderson (29 percent in 2012), if you need some perspective. All told though, he’s an above average hitter with power; something every team covets.
While he’s a good hitter, he’s equally inept with the glove. Besides the pitcher, catcher is the most important defensive position. It’s one that requires players to keep baserunners from advancing into scoring position, keeping balls in front of them, and managing the game and pitching staff. It’s a HUGE part of the game, and Napoli struggles mightily. In 2012, he was below average in DRS (-3), which denotes how many runs he saved or allowed with his defense, and rSB (-2), which tracks how many stolen base runs he allowed. He played the position in fewer than 70 games, so those numbers would look even worse if we extrapolate them to fit an entire season.
Hitting is at a premium with regards to the catching position, but Napoli is just a player who has played catcher before, not one who should be counted on to be your team’s long-term catcher. He’s been known to experience injuries pretty frequently, so the risk of losing his services for an extended period is ever-present. Furthermore, he’s prone to long slumps. For instance, during July and August this past season he hit .183/.364/.433 and .167/.318/.222, respectively. Granted, his August numbers came in only 18 at-bats because — you guessed it — an injury; one that affected his quadriceps and kept him out for most of the month. He was banged up for most of the season, so there’s a chance that 2012 was an anomaly, but there’s haven’t been many instances where catchers get better with the bat with age.
Although the Yankees are probably being used to raise his asking price, here’s to hoping he doesn’t come to the Bronx, and Brian Cashman re-signs Martin instead. While Martin doesn’t give you the huge power potential (however, 20 homers is nothing to sneeze at), he gives your defense more credibility. Considering the Rays, Orioles and the newly speed-infused Blue Jays all run (or will run) at a good clip, it’s imperative the Yankees have a defensive-minded catcher who can handle the stick. Napoli is not that player.