Mike Napoli is on the verge of completing a season long journey that has taken him from the outhouse in Anaheim to the penthouse in Arlington. With one more Rangers’ victory, Napoli is almost assured of becoming the World Series MVP, which wouldn’t be as remarkable if the defensively maligned catcher hadn’t been traded twice during the past offseason.
Despite having an outstanding regular season, including an OPS+ of 171, Napoli’s postseason success is what has finally forced many to reevaluate the offseason trades that dropped him in the lap of the Texas Rangers. Ironically, however, Napoli’s success has also led to some revisionist history. Several times during the FOX broadcast of the World Series, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver have commented about the value of an offensive catcher tutored by Mike Scioscia, but never have they mentioned that Scioscia’s reluctance to play Napoli was likely the impetus for his being jettisoned by the Angels.
In today’s Los Angeles Times, Bill Plaschke caught up with Scioscia and, not surprisingly, the Angels’ manager distanced himself from the decision. Without directly placing all the blame on former GM Tony Reagins, Scioscia offered the tried and true “I just work here” defense. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. After all, Scioscia, not Reagins, was the one working under an unprecedented 10-year deal.
If you say our organization didn’t value Mike Napoli, it’s absolutely wrong. The hindsight of this trade is 20/20 vision, and right now, obviously in the playoffs, that vision carries lot of weight. But I still think there is a lot of upside of what our team can become with Vernon.” – Mike Scioscia, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, October 26, 2011
Even if you give the Angels’ organization a pass for thinking Vernon Wells could replicate his 2010 season, that doesn’t explain why the team jettisoned Napoli, who was really nothing more than a salary dump intended to even out the cash flow in the trade. As evidence of that, the Blue Jays promptly sent Napoli to the Texas Rangers for reliever Frank Francisco. That’s why the expectations for Wells were really irrelevant to the dismissal of Napoli.
So, if the Angels didn’t have to deal Napoli for Wells, why did they? Was it a money saving mandate from ownership, or did Mike Scioscia’s mistrust of Napoli’s defense make him expendable? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. When faced with the prospect of taking on Wells’ large salary, it’s a good bet that owner Arte Moreno told Reagins to trim the payroll, and Napoli’s approximately $6 million salary for 2011 had to seem like a good place to start. After all, as Reagins probably reasoned, if Scioscia wasn’t going to play him, why waste that kind of money? Although it was ultimately Reagins’ decision to include Napoli in the deal, you can’t ignore the forces that were likely pushing against him from both ends.
It’s always the defensive part. I thought I made some strides in Spring Training. I guess I have to be better. … I haven’t played much. It caught me by surprise.” – Mike Napoli, quoted in the Sporting News, April 17, 2010
The kicker to Napoli’s meteoric rise is the abysmal season turned in by the man who essentially forced him out of Anaheim. In 2011, Jeff Mathis posted a futile OPS+ of 37, which probably shouldn’t have surprised the Angels because that’s exactly the rate at which he produced in 2010. Although Scioscia and his defenders will be quick to point out that his preference for Mathis was based on defense, it’s worth noting that when taking into account this factor, Napoli’s 2011 season still rated well over five wins better, according to the most cutting edge studies being done on catchers’ defense. Even if you allow for a large margin for error in these metrics, it still wouldn’t lessen the gulf that exists between Mathis and Napoli.
Sometimes, a personal bias can get in the way of a proper evaluation. Because of his reputation as a top defensive catcher, it seems as if Mike Scioscia has fallen into that trap. For years, the widely acclaimed manager refused to accept that a catcher’s value could just as easily be defined by his bat as his glove. Perhaps he was also unable to see the improvements that Napoli was making as a backstop? Regardless, it now seems clear that the Angels, led by Scioscia’s evaluation, committed a major mistake. Because they couldn’t picture Napoli as their everyday catcher, the Angels are now being forced to watch him excel with another team (one in their division no less) on the game’s biggest stage.