Ask Alex: Can Mike Napoli top his career year?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

We all have questions about the 2012 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address some of the big ones as the year progresses.

The Situation: It's not totally clear why the first full season of Mike Napoli's career came in 2010, when he was 28. It's not like he was Paul Lo Duca, who was just buried in the minors until his late 20s. Napoli was the Angels' primary catcher from 2006 to 2010, but from 2006 to 2009, the team never let him get more than 432 plate appearances, because they were determined to play Jeff Mathis. Mathis was a good defensive catcher, but he totally couldn't hit, with a career .194 batting average in 426 games and 1,360 plate appearances. Napoli was apparently not a great defensive catcher, but he really could hit: He cranked 20 homers in 2008 in just 78 games. (That season was shortened by a shoulder injury that landed him on the DL.)

But all that production wasn't enough for the Angels to give him the job outright, which would have meant cutting Mathis loose. In January of 2011, the Angels included Napoli in their ill-fated trade to get Vernon Wells from the Blue Jays, and a few days later, the Jays turned around and flipped Napoli to the Rangers for closer Frank Francisco. After all of that, Napoli busted out the whooping stick on the entire league, though his great success really irked Angels fans who wished for his offense.

The Question: Can Mike Napoli top the career year he posted in 2011?

The Analysis: Napoli played five years in Anaheim, but what they didn't realize was that he was quietly one of the best power hitters in baseball. By the end of the 2010 season, Napoli had hit 92 homers in 1,804 plate appearances from 2006-10, the 15th-best ratio in baseball over that stretch. From 2006-2010, he had the fourth-highest slugging percentage among catchers, behind Jorge Posada, Brian McCann and Joe Mauer. But he flew under the radar in part because he had a low batting average, just .251, which may have been one of the reasons that the Angels limited his plate appearances.

Ultimately, the biggest difference between his 2011 breakout and his production from 2006-2010 was in his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which spiked 65 points from 2010 to 2011; his .344 BABIP in 2011 is 41 points higher than his career average. Unsurprisingly, his .320 batting average in 2011 is 56 points higher than his career mark. Getting all those extra singles helped pull his on-base percentage and slugging percentage higher, too.

In terms of power, the only season of his career that matched 2011 was that injury-shortened 2008 season I mentioned earlier. In 2011, he had a .312 isolated power (ISO), which is 63 points higher than his career average but one point lower than the mark he posted in 2008. Likewise, his home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB) was 19.1 percent in 2011, 3 percent higher than his career rate but 1.7 percent lower than 2008.

In other words, while his batting average was way out of line with anything he had done previously, and is almost certainly an outlier that he won't repeat, his power performance was on the high end of what we all knew he could do. His move to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington can help explain that, too. In 942 plate appearances in Anaheim, he has hit .250/.344/.506; in 314 PA in Arlington, one of the best hitters' parks in the majors, he has hit .302/.408/.589. So his increased power production may well be repeatable.

That's what the major forecasting systems think, too. Bill James and ZiPS are remarkably similar in their prediction, largely separated by how much playing time they think he'll manage. The Bill James Handbook projects a .271/.364/.537 batting line with 31 homers in 131 games, while ZiPS projects .272/.361/.538 with 26 homers in 118 games. (That would still be more than the 113 games he played in 2011.) CAIRO is the most pessimistic in playing time but most optimistic in offense, projecting .283/.369/.568 with 24 homers in 101 games.

The Forecast for 2012: It's easy to know that Napoli will hit; it's hard to know the likelihood of injury for a 30-year old catcher with a history of shoulder, hamstring and oblique muscle injuries. On the one hand, the Angels' handling of him means that his knees have fewer miles on them than would be the case for many of his contemporaries. On the other hand, he missed several weeks last year and made the fourth DL trip of his career, and 30 is the age that most catchers start to see their production decline. (Napoli turned 30 this past Halloween.)

I'll take the cautious middle-of-the-road prediction, right in between James and ZiPS: .275/.365/.535, with 125 games played and 25-30 homers. It's unclear how many games the Rangers will actually play him at catcher — last year, he split time at catcher, first base and DH, and the Rangers may want to emphasize those last two so as to keep his knees fresh and his bat in the lineup. Still, no matter where he plays, he'll remain one of the best power hitters in the league.

Other Ask Alex questions for 2012
Will Jayson Werth hit over .240 this year?
Are Carl Crawford's best years behind him?
• Can Jose Reyes repeat as NL batting champ?
• Can Fielder and Cabrera combine for 80 homers?
• Will Julio Teheran or Matt Moore win rookie of the year?
• Will Alex Avila be an All-Star again?
• Can Michael Pineda keep his ERA under 4 in the AL East?
• Can Adam Dunn return to 30 home run territory?
• Can Jason Heyward return to his rookie form?
• Can Matt Kemp go 50/50?

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