The Texas Rangers topped the Seattle Mariners 4-2 on Monday night in the opener of a three-game series. The game-deciding play was a three-run home run by Rangers catcher, Mike Napoli. His 6th-inning blast that went 401 feet to right field was all that Matt Harrison and Joe Nathan would need to seal the Rangers fourth victory in a row. Napoli has now homered in two consecutive games, both to right field, in what just might be the beginning of a new hot streak for the “Italian Stallion”.
In 2011, Mike Napoli hit .320 with 30 home runs and a 1.046 OPS in his first season with the Rangers. His career batting average is .263, and his career average OPS is .867, so his 2011 campaign was far above and beyond what was to be expected when the Rangers traded Frankie Francisco to the Toronto Blue Jays for what was at the time believed to be a right-handed bench bat. However, Napoli did not hit at such a blistering pace for all of 2011.
So far in 2012, Napoli has 163 plate appearances. He has hit .241 with 9 home runs and a .806 OPS in that time. In 2011, Napoli reached 163 plate appearances on June 11th, and was hitting .221 with 10 home runs and a .836 OPS. Napoli has hit for a better average so far in 2012 than he did to this point in 2011, despite generating slightly fewer walks and less power. Overall, the starts to his two seasons with the Rangers have been very comparable.
So what changed to take Napoli from a .221/.344/.493 hitter after 163 plate appearances in 2011 to being a .320/.414/.631 hitter for the entire season? In his final 269 plate appearances of 2011, Napoli hit .378/.457/.712. In other words, as good as Josh Hamilton has started 2012, that is how good that Mike Napoli finished 2011, almost exactly.
There are some reasons for concern about the 2012 version of Mike Napoli. Perhaps he was over-exposed in 2011, or perhaps the toll of playing catcher in the Texas heat wore him down (even though Napoli caught 60 games at catcher in 2011, only his 3rd-highest total for a season in his career). Of the most concern may be his strikeout rate in 2012. Napoli has now struck out in 33.1% of his 2012 plate appearances. In 2011, he struck out in just 19.7% of his plate appearances, and his career average is at 25.0%. Napoli credited much of his 2011 success to adjusting his two-strike approach by shortening his swing and hitting the ball to right field more often. His two consecutive home runs that have flown into the right field bleachers may be a sign that he is working to re-gain that approach.
There is no guarantee that Napoli will finish 2012 in the same fashion that he finished 2011. To do so would be holding unrealistically lofty expectations. However, based on his career performance, one can expect that Napoli will finish the season with a better slash line than his current .241/.331/.475, requiring another strong finish to this season. If he can do that, he may earn the moniker of “slow-starter”, but regardless of the journey will have once again been a significant piece of a successful Texas Rangers ball club.
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