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The Strike Zone

Napoli fills big hole for Red Sox

Mike Napoli has hit at least 20 home runs each of the past five seasons though never topping 140 games played. (AP) Mike Napoli has hit at least 20 home runs each of the past five seasons though never topping 140 games played. (AP)

NASHVILLE -- Overlook the positional label -- that pesky titular relic of him playing “catcher” -- and replace it with “righthanded power hitter,” and the Red Sox’ signing of Mike Napoli on Monday starts looking so glaringly obvious that one is left wondering what took so long.

Napoli is a catcher by trade and is joining a roster already stocked with three major league catchers (Jarrod Saltalamacchia, David Ross and Ryan Lavarnway), but that doesn't matter. Boston’s latest acquisition -- according to multiple reports, the 31-year-old former Ranger is signing for three years and $39 million -- is a great fit even if he leaves his chest protector at home. He’ll primarily play first base, where he’s logged 133 games over the last three seasons, and catch some.

The 2012 Red Sox sorely longed for a righthanded bat with patience and pop, two virtues Napoli packs in abundance, even if they often come at the detriment of his contact rate.

For all the perception of the Boston lineup being a walk-heavy, on-base machine, last year’s team drew the second-fewest walks in the American League, doing so at a pace of one walk every 14.41 plate appearances, which was the franchise’s worst walk rate since 1931. That was eight years before Ted Williams debuted as a rookie.

Napoli only batted .227 last year and .238 in 2010, sandwiched around a .320 average that’s looking like an aberration for a hitter with a .259 career number. And while his career high in home runs is only 30 and in walks it’s only 58, those counting numbers belie his prodigious ability to accrue them because he was considered a liability as an everyday catcher. In his seven seasons, Napoli has never played more than 140 games, and he only topped 115 games once.

Yet since 2008 the list of hitters with the greatest home run rates (measured as at bats-per-home run) are as follows: Jose Bautista (13.95), Albert Pujols (14.84) and Napoli (14.86). Over the same time, the only two righthanded Red Sox hitters with single-season home run rates better than 21 PA/HR, nevermind cumulative totals during those five years, are Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis, both of whom are no longer with the team. Overall, Boston ranked ninth in the AL in homers last season.

In that same time span of 2008-12 Napoli ranked 44th in the majors (out of 233 qualified hitters) in plate appearances-per-walk, which doesn’t sound all that guady, but consider the paucity of Red Sox ahead of him on that list. Of the 43 players who walked more often than Napoli, the list of hitters who played in Boston is J.D. Drew, David Ortiz, Bay, Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez. It’s like a multiple choice question where you’re asked to identify which one is not like the other -- that’s Ortiz, the only one still a Red Sox.

Though Napoli struggled for much of last season, his second with Texas and seventh in the big leagues, he finished with a flourish, returning from a 33-game disabled list stint to crush seven homers in his final 16 games. In another small yet tantalizing sample, he has a preposterous 1.107 OPS with seven homers in 17 career games at Fenway Park.

There are adjustments to be made -- becoming a primary first baseman, playing every day and dealing with the high-intensity Boston market -- but Napoli is a middle-of-the-order power hitter from the righthanded batter’s box, filling a giant Red Sox hole.

-- By Joe Lemire
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