No player influenced the AL West in 2011 more than Mike Napoli. The part-time backstop, whose defense never earned him the full trust of Mike Scioscia and the Angels, was shipped to Toronto this past January as part of a deal for Vernon Wells. Four days later, Napoli was traded to L.A.'s chief division rival for Frank Francisco. While Wells turned in a wretched season (-0.3 Wins Above Replacement) and raked in $23 million (it's OK, he has three more years to redeem himself at $21 million a pop!), Napoli paced Rangers players with 5.5 WAR.
Napoli has been devastating offensively. Including the playoffs, his .431 Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) places third among MLB hitters with at least 400 trips to the plate. Napoli has pared down his strikeout rate (to a career-low 19.8 percent), and his patient approach produces plenty of walks as well (13.1 percent). And when he does decide to take a whack at a pitch off the plate, there's a reason: Napoli knows he can crush it.
Generally speaking, swinging at pitches out of the zone is a lousy idea. Hitters have a collective .195 wOBA when going after pitches out of the zone. But Napoli? He has a .360 wOBA when he goes fishing, which ranks second to Pablo Sandoval among MLB batters. Napoli is hardly a Vlad Guerrero-esque, hack-happy hitter: his 23 percent chase rate is well below the 28-29 percent big league average. Rather, his out-of-zone swings are calculated. Napoli kills high pitches, so he's not bashful about going after pitches up the ladder.
Take a look at Napoli's out-of-zone swing rate this season, compared to the league average. You'll note that he's awfully aggressive on high pitches, but just about never swings at pitches off the plate in other locations:
Here's how Napoli's chase rate breaks down by vertical pitch location, compared to the league average:
High pitches: 29 percent, 26 percent league average
Middle pitches: 27 percent, 34 percent league average
Low pitches: 13 percent, 28 percent league average
Napoli's aggressiveness on high pitches is paying off handsomely. Check out his in-play slugging percentage on pitches thrown out of the strike zone, compared to the league average:
Napoli's nine homers on out-of-zone pitches rank second in the majors, and seven of those shots have come on high pitches. A word of advice to Cardinals pitchers as the World Series kicks off tonight: if you're thinking about trying to get Napoli to chase high, think again.