There's a lot of talk, justifiably, about Napoli on this site at the moment. There's SubOp's cruel bedtime stories, and Downing Rules' case (from the negatives of Nap's defense) for Napoli at DH next season.
Like Downing Rules, I've been a fan of the concept of Napoli as full-time DH for two to three seasons now. It's why I was very meh on the Matsui signing in the offseason.
One, I hate the zero sum game that places Mathis against Napoli, simply because individuals got it into their minds that each is a catcher, and each is a catcher only. It's the same sort of zero sum game that led fans to devalue Chone Figgins' performance in his prime with the club, because they were dreaming hard on some false vision of Brandon Wood's professional dominance (or that of Dallas McPherson before him). Had everyone set aside positional expectations, we could've all truly appreciated a year like 2009 where Figgins delivered a majestic 6.1 wins above replacement from third base, instead handwringing about fictional opportunity costs related to the deferment of Wood's eventual Season of the Whiff (Donovan, forgive my lisp) .
Two, Napoli remains a very cheap bat. At $3.6M, his cost was just over half that of Matsui's ($6.5M), and he's performed well in the limited chances he's had as a DH (.980 OPS). One could imagine an alternative off-season where the Angels FO directed that $6.5M toward someone like Beltre, and installed Napoli in the obvious slot at DH.
So with that, I'd like set aside the talk and take that case a little further by just looking at the numbers from 2010 for a moment. How would Naps have compared with Godzila, given equal opportunity?
Matsui: 17 HR 71 RBI 47 Runs in 474 PAs
Napoli: 21 HR 60 RBI 48 Runs in 417 PAs
(Napoli projected to 474 PAs : 24 HR 68 RBI 55 Runs)
Matsui: Runners on base: .880 OPS (66 RBIs) 193 chances
Napoli: Runners on base: .815 OPS (50 RBIs) 152 chances
(Napoli projected to 193 chances: 64 RBIs)
Advanced Metrics (from FanGraphs)
Matsui: 1.0 WAR .341 wOBA Positional Value: $4M
Napoli: 2.2 WAR .342 wOBA Positional Value: $9M
We can set aside a bit of that WAR differential and attribute it to positional valuation. Not all of it mind you, but WAR gives Napoli some positional credit for the fraction of his season spent at catcher, and it also subtracts some value for the time Matsui spent playing the outfield, which really was not a good idea in the end.
Outside of that, however, what we see here, normalized for playing time, is nearly equivalent performances. Napoli unquestionably has the higher power ceiling, and if one is only interested in runs created via crossing the plate and via the RBI, Naps has a small edge in aggregate. The only place where Matsui outperforms Napoli is hitting with runners on base -- but in terms of RBIs, even that almost completely washes out given equivalent playing time. Not that hitting with RISP is a consistently repeatable skill (Napoli, for example, had a 1.012 OPS with runners on in the 2008 season).
So, with equal time, equal performance, with a slight edge to Napoli for power and "run production".
But it's interesting, of course, how management views the relative value of these two players. Here's Scioscia in the LA Times earlier this week on Matsui:
"Hideki's production is very close to what we anticipated," manager Mike Scioscia said. "As a group, we've underperformed. Some guys who are well below what you'd expect. Hideki is not one of those guys."
So, Matsui has met expectations, but as we've seen, Napoli has not. This is considered a bad season for Naps, arguably the worst of his career as regular player -- if not from the player himself, at least from the vantage of the coach:
(H)is frustration was evident when asked whether he was beginning to feel like the opportunity to play every day was not going to happen in Anaheim.
"Yeah," said Napoli, who shares catching duties with Jeff Mathis and the first base job with Juan Rivera. "I'm having one of the best years of my career, and I'm not playing much. I guess I don't get it done on the defensive side. I have to clean things up."
"We've talked about my setup, my target," Napoli said. "I'm trying to get my ERA and walks down."
One could point out here that it was Napoli who had to catch Kazmir on July 10, 2010, the day Scioscia let him rot in Oakland to the tune of 13 earned runs in five innings. This was Kazmir's last outing before his DL stint. He also had to catch Kazmir on May 6, 2010 in Boston, where Kazmir gave up 7 ERs in 4.1 innings. Those two games alone account for more than half of the differential between Wilson's and Napoli's CERA behind the dish -- and it was managerial "discretion" that allowed the pitcher to stink it up to that extent on those occasions.
Nonetheless, it's pretty clear what Scioscia's message is to Napoli here: if he wants to be in the lineup consistently, it will still depend on his pitcher's performance on those days Napoli's in the lineup as a catcher. Napoli needs to improve "his" CERA and get "his" walks down (meaning those of the pitcher he's catching). His fate is married to the injuries that Kazmir hides, the developmental progress of Bell, and every other pitching project Reagins can come up with. I don't need to revisit the lunacy of this. Suboptimal does it all too well.
Meanwhile , a good, rational manager would set aside the positional expectations, and get Napoli into the lineup consistently for his bat -- it's clear he underperforms when played inconsistently. He's a streaky hitter -- to not ride out the cold streaks is as often as not to miss the hot streaks as well -- it's like trading out of a volatile stock during the troughs instead of at the peaks.
Some fans are already encouraging the organization to "cut bait" on Napoli due to the $4-5M he'll be likely to make next year in arbitration. This, by the way, was the exact same argument made to get rid of Darren Oliver last season (who ultimately would have made under $4M given the eventual market for relievers). It's a demonstrably bad argument.
If Napoli will not be worth $5M as a DH next season, how do folks view Matsui at $6.5M this season? Fans that don't think Napoli is worth $5M for his bat should be calling for Reagins' head right now.