2016 Napoli vs. 2013 Reynolds

ReynoldsNapAs I sat down to begin writing this post, Mike Napoli sent a fastball from Wade Miley to right field for a long single in the second inning in Seattle. That he took the pitch — one low and on the outer half of the plate — to the opposite field was a good sign.

We’ll get to that a bit later.

First, let’s start a few seasons back, because Napoli’s solid start to this season has many followers of the Tribe thinking back to another right-handed slugger who got off to a solid start. Remember Mark Reynolds? He’s a cautionary tale for Cleveland, which is enjoying what it’s getting from Napoli, and hoping it will continue.

Flashback to May 6 of that 2013 season, when Reynolds dropped jaws after flicking his bat away. He absolutely crushed a pitch against the A’s and admired it as he walked out of the box, spitting before moving into his home run trot.

It was a thing of beauty, and it was the beginning of the end for the slugger in Cleveland.

After that game, we interviewed Reynolds about the blast and about his reaction to it — a bit of gamesmanship that stemmed from being hit by a pitch a few innings earlier — and we discussed his strong start. At the time, Reynolds was batting .300 with a 1.026 OPS out of the gates for the Indians.

“To be able to come out and have the start I’ve had,” Reynolds said that day, “I think it has a lot to do with experience. It has a lot to do with not caring what you guys write about me. I’m just doing my thing and having fun out there.”

And then, as we all said our thanks and began to walk away, Reynolds added…

“Wait ’til I go into an 0-for-30. Then you [guys] will be all over me.”

He wasn’t far off. Reynolds hit .179 with a .532 OPS in his next 71 games and was released by the Indians on Aug. 12.

Throughout that May in ’13, many Indians fans were e-mailing and tweeting and calling in to talk shows, begging the Tribe to hand Reynolds an extension. Surely, that incredible start was worth more than the one-year deal the Indians handed him. He was the Right-Handed Power Bat that Cleveland needed.

But then, he wasn’t.

That brings me to this tweet I received not long ago about Napoli:

For starters, the 34-year-old Napoli is five years older than Reynolds was during that ’13 campaign, so a contract extension is already questionable simply due to age. Perhaps a short-term pact wouldn’t be out of the question at some point, but if the Reynolds situation taught us anything, it’s not to overreact, or even just react much at all, to roughly two months of at-bats.

And, when you look at the numbers, 2016 Napoli has been very similar to 2013 Reynolds.

Here’s a look at Napoli through Monday (223 plate appearances):

.234/.305/.502. 14 HR, 42 RBI

Here’s Reynolds April 2-June 4, 2013 (223 plate appearances)

.247/.332/.485, 13 HR, 41 RBI

Now, much of Reynolds’ production there is inflated due to his incredible five-week showing out of the gates. Napoli, for the most part, has stayed relatively close to his slash line all season. That alone is reason to believe Napoli’s production is a little more sustainable. His peaks and valleys have been there, but not nearly as extreme as with Reynolds back in ’13.

There is also the matter of strikeouts. Napoli strikes out a lot — like 35.9-percent-of-the-time a l0t. During the noted sample of plate appearances for Reynolds, his strikeout percentage was 27.8. That’s still high, but not to the same level as Napoli this season. That said, not all strikeouts are created equal.

Anyone who has paid close attention to Napoli this season would probably be quick to tell you that he strikes out looking quite a bit. Heading into Tuesday’s action, Napoli had gone down looking in 28 of his 80 strikeouts (35 percent). Prior to ’16, Napoli had a 27.3-percent looking strikeout rate, so there’s reason to believe he’ll improve there as the season wears on.

One of the big issues with the looking strikeouts has been low-and-outside pitches.

NapZones

The above strike-zone map shows that 20 the 80 strikeouts by Napoli this season have been low and away. Half of those called. Ryan Lewis of the Akron Beacon Journal chatted with Napoli about that trend back on May 20. As it happens, Napoli hasn’t had a called strikeout to those quadrants since May 21. Ten of the 14 strikeouts to those two areas through May 21 were called.

So, there’s been progress of late. Consider Napoli’s home run against the Royals on June 5. Not only was a pitch to that low-and-away portion of the plate, but Napoli took it to the opposite field for a home run off Chris Young.

Here is Napoli’s production on pitches to that area of the strike zone:

NapSpray

This does, in a way, bring us back to Reynolds. Reynolds struck out fewer times in the noted sample, but he went down swinging more than Napoli. Cleveland’s current first baseman averaged 4.7 pitches per plate appearance (contributing to some of those called third strikes), while Reynolds saw 4.3 P/PA.

Reynolds went down looking in 12.9 percent of his strikeouts through June 4 of 2013. His swinging strike rate of 14.4 percent was higher than Napoli’s is now (12.7 percent). Their ball-in-play percentages are roughly the same (28.9 for Nap and 30.5 for Reynolds). And, their respective BABIPs were in line with their career norms (.306 for Napoli, who has a .307 career mark; .287 for Reynolds, who’s had a .284 mark from ’12-16).

In terms of all those swinging strikes for both players, here’s the comparison:

SwingingKs

So, it’s pretty clear here that pitchers were exploiting a weakness of Reynolds with pitches low and outside the zone. That’s been an area in which Napoli has run into a good chunk of called strikeouts, but not nearly as many swings and misses.

Of all those swinging strikes for Reynolds, a good portion came against sliders/curveballs (33.3 percent). Napoli’s swinging-strike rate on those breaking balls is 21 percent. Napoli has been more prone to swinging and missing at hard fastballs. Napoli has a .160 ISO/.320 SLG on pitches of 94 mph or greater, while Reynolds had a .259/.481 showing on such pitches in the comparison sample. On the other hand, Napoli has a .225 ISO/.450 SLG on sliders/curveballs, while Reynolds had a .164/.377 showing.

So, as much as they look similar on the surface, 2016 Napoli and 2013 Reynolds are hardly the same hitter. Napoli might swing through the hard heat at times, but he can fight off put-away breaking pitches and grind through longer at-bats. Reynolds, if he didn’t jump on the hard stuff, was more prone to being put away with breaking pitches, espcially out of the zone.

Does this mean Napoli can avoid the kind of collapse Reynolds experienced three years ago? Well, when he strikes out in eight straight plate appearances — like he did in last month’s trip to Boston — it’s not hard to envision a prolonged slump. That said, there are aspects of his season to date that make it seem like he’d be less likely to fall into a cavernous slump like Reynolds did.

Still, I wouldn’t come running to him with a contract extension if I were Cleveland just yet. I’d just enjoy what Napoli is doing and see how far it helps take the Tribe.

–JB

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