When the Cleveland Indians signed Mike Napoli in early January, many fans hoped he would be the right-handed power bat they have desperately been waiting for. The 34-year-old first baseman averaged more than 20 homers per year since he started playing full time in 2009. His career slash line of .253/.353/.482 showed a decent hitter who swings for the fences. Though his overall 2015 numbers were bad, he heated up at the end of the year, hitting .295/.396/.513 in his final 35 games. Fans trusted he could continue this success into 2016.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. Napoli struggled in April, posting a .205/.262/.410 line with 33 strikeouts and only five walks in 20 games. His unusually high strikeout percentage of 39.3% had many fans pulling out their hair in frustration. Even the advanced numbers showed Napoli was struggling: his OPS+ was 83 and his wRC+ was 86 (100 is average for both). Napoli was basically Carlos Santana but without the redeeming walks.
Napoli’s main struggle was his high strikeouts and low walks. Striking out a lot is normally the downside to hitting for power – just ask Mark Reynolds – but Napoli’s rate in April was much higher than his career rate of 26.7%. To compound that, his walk percentage was only 5.9%, significantly lower than his career rate of 12.3%.
How did this happen? According to PITCHf/x data provided to Fangraphs, Napoli was swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone 24.5% of the time, 0.1% away from a career high. In addition, he was making contact at balls thrown within the zone at a career low of 72.9%. So he was swinging at bad pitches, and when he did swing at good pitches he wasn’t making as much contact as he normally does, a perfect recipe for more strikeouts and fewer walks.
However, there were signs that Napoli could trend up in May. He led the league in number of pitches per plate appearance with 4.88, a high number even for the patient Napoli. And, he came up big when the Tribe needed him. All four of his home runs either gave the club the lead or tied the game. For starters, he hit a go-ahead homer in only his second game on April 6, then on April 9 he tied the game with a two-run shot. On the 21st he tied the game with a pinch-hit two-run home run, and finally, he tied the game in the ninth with a solo shot on April 26. So despite causing hair loss with his strikeouts, he provided shouts of joy with his home runs.
When the calendar changed to May, Napoli changed as well. So far in seven games, he’s put up a .292/.393/.625 slash line to go along with two home runs and nine runs driven in. He’s also decreased his strikeout rate, down to 28.6% (hurt by a three-K game Monday), and more than doubled his walk rate as it’s up to 14.3%. May increased Napoli’s average by 20 points and his slugging by 51 points.
Driving the turnaround is Napoli’s hard hitting tendency. In April, his hard hit percentage was only 44.4%, another reason a May shift was expected, and this continued into May. He was just unlucky this past month with those hard hits not falling in for hits. Now, they are finally dropping. Hopefully, Napoli can continue to hit at a torrid stretch to finally become the right handed power bat Tribe fans have been dreaming of for years.
Photo: Tony Dejak/Associated Press