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Mike Napoli’s ups are worth the downs

Posted by Adam Kaufman  July 26, 2013 01:07 AM

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In the weeks leading up to Major League Baseball’s All-Star Break, the patience of Red Sox fans was waning with first baseman Mike Napoli.

Gone were the memories of Napoli's torrid start to the season, when his mashing carried the Sox to an 11-4 record in the absence of an injured David Ortiz. Through a May 1 drubbing of the Blue Jays, the 31-year-old batted .287 with 10 doubles, 5 home runs, 31 RBI, a .602 slugging percentage, and .944 OPS in 27 games to open his Boston career.

However, in the What-Have-You-Done-For-Me-Lately world of sports, Napoli tapered off and fans took a grumbling notice. Over the next 61 games, he matched his 10-double, 5-home run totals while driving in just 28 runs and slugging a sluggish .365.

After those 88 games, and one removed from the Midsummer Classic, Napoli was asked if his hip condition – the ailment that nixed a 3-year, $39 million deal in the offseason in favor of a more cautious one-year, $5 million agreement with incentives – had been having an effect on his performance in recent months.

“I’ve always been streaky,” he told reporters on Saturday. “If I knew why, I wouldn’t do it. In April, I was feeling as good as I can feel, but I have ups and downs. Sometimes I feel really good, sometimes I don’t.”

A friend of mine once said to me, “Being ‘streaky’ doesn’t really exist. It’s illusion and confirmation bias.”

He’s correct. No stat could possibly predict future streakiness, merely justify past performance. If it goes on for long enough, some will view it as an expectation, rather than explaining any hot stretches or rough patches away by the quality of opponents or where the balls were hit. We much prefer to chalk those prolonged realities up to streaks and slumps because, frankly, it’s easier and gives us something to bewilder at or bemoan, even if it’s just sheer luck and randomness.

In Napoli’s case, it’s been the story of his career.

Rather than bore you by examining each season of an eight-year tenure that began at the age of 24 back in 2006, let’s simply view the last few.

In 2011, Napoli’s first year in Texas, the first three months of his season were abysmal compared to the last half. From April until June, he batted just .221 with 7 doubles, 10 home runs, and 25 RBI in 46 games. Once July came, it was a new norm through September, courtesy of a .378 average, 18 doubles, 20 homers, and 50 RBI in 67 contests.

Last season was much more of an up-and-down year for the Rangers' power hitter. In April, Napoli batted. 257 with 7 long-balls, 14 RBI, and a .909 OPS in 20 games. The following four months, by comparison, were not very good. Over 72 outings, he hit a lousy .212 while blasting 10 homers and driving in 26. But, once again, he finished strong in September and October with a .255 average, 7 home runs, 16 RBI, and a whopping 1.051 OPS in just 16 games.

That brings us back to his 2013 campaign.

A thunderous April invited a more pedestrian May and June before the arrival of a scorching July. In fact, since Napoli’s well-timed comments over the weekend, he’s batting .467 (7-15) with 2 doubles, 3 homers (including a walk-off winner against the Yankees on Sunday), 5 RBI, 5 runs scored, and a breathtaking 1.700 OPS. A small sample size, sure, but it’s a start.

Going back to July 12, Napoli is hitting .407 (11-27) with 3 doubles, a triple, 3 dingers, 5 RBI, and a 1.374 OPS. The only ugly stat there is the 10 strikeouts, without which he’s batting a ridiculous .647 when he puts the bat on the ball. To go another step, the veteran has rediscovered his power swing with 11 extra-base hits (5 doubles, a triple, 5 home runs) in his last 15 games after one double in 21 previous contests. Again, his stats are littered with inconsistency, whether you wish to deem that “streakiness” or not.

Those strikeouts – a big reason for the fan outrage – have certainly been a problem. At 128 already, second in the majors and just nine from matching his career-high, Napoli’s strikeout rate is the highest it’s ever been at 33.1 percent. The closest was 30 percent in 2012. As a result, because he is a free-swinger who rarely takes a free base, his walks-to-strikeout ratio is a career-low 0.31.

But, it’s worth it. No matter how frustrating it is to watch his lumber flail at the air, it’s a marvel when he makes contact. Napoli is hitting .425 when wood hits cowhide, and he ranks third in all of baseball with a .383 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). His career-high 26 doubles place him tied for eighth in the American League, and he’s ninth in the league with 63 RBI, a dozen from a new personal-best.

“I guess it’s a snapshot somewhat of his career path,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said of Napoli after Sunday’s win, during which Boston’s bruiser homered twice and struck out three times. “We know and certainly live with some swing and miss, but the ability to drive the ball through the ballpark to all fields is present every time he steps into the batter’s box.

“With players that tend to be streaky or those who have some maintenance to their swing, you have to ride it,” Farrell continued. “He’s the type of player you’re going to live and die with, that type of approach.”

So far, that approach is fitting the Sox just fine, even with all those strikeouts. They’re second in baseball with 61 wins, and much of that is thanks to clutch hitting from Napoli. Standard categories aside, he’s third on the team in a pair of key areas: Go-ahead RBI (11) and 2-out RBI (17). Plus, to alleviate the chief concern that delayed his signing by six weeks, he’s missed only nine games and has yet to visit the disabled list.

“When I get hot, I get real hot,” Napoli told reporters on the eve of what’s become a four-game warpath on opposing pitchers. “Maybe I’ll do it the last two months into the playoffs. That would be awesome.”

It sure would, because odds are the Red Sox are going to need him.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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