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Napoli's Two-Strike Contact

Mike Napoli is thriving in his first season in Texas. The 29-year-old masher, never fully embraced by Mike Scioscia in L.A., was traded to Toronto in the logic-defying Vernon Wells deal last off-season and then sent to the Rangers in exchange for reliever Frank Francisco. The part-time catcher is raking to the tune of a .294 average, a .386 on-base percentage and a .592 slugging percentage with Texas, racking up a career-best 3.3 Wins Above Replacement so far.

Napoli's having his best season yet by paring down his strikeout rate from 26.9 percent of his plate appearances last season to 18.6 percent in 2011. In particular, he's making for more contact in two-strike counts.

First, here's the league average contact rate by pitch location in two-strike situations:

Overall, non-pitchers miss 20.5 percent of pitches swung at with two strikes.

Now, compare Napoli's contact rates in two-stike counts in 2010 and 2011:

Napoli's contact rate by pitch location in two-strike counts, 2010

Napoli's contact rate by pitch location in two-strike counts, 2011

Napoli is whiffing less just about everywhere, especially against high pitches and offerings thrown inside. His miss percentage with two strikes has dropped from 29.6 percent in 2010 to 19.9 percent in 2011. And while most players are fighting a losing battle once they have two strikes on them, hitting a collective .191/.260/.288, Napoli has a .277/.358/.484 line in such situations.

Considering that Angels catchers are getting on base barely a quarter of the time and slugging .300, you'd have to think they'd love to have Napoli back instead of watching him dim their playoff prospects on hard cut at a time.


Selling High

The Houston Astros may have traded Michael Bourn of the Atlanta Braves and Hunter Pence of the Philadelphia Phillies at just the right time.  Bourn ranks third in the majors and Pence seventh in batting average on balls in play (BABIP).  That measures the ability of batters to get hits when they don't strike out or hit the ball out of the park.  In other words, the ability to get a ball past fielders.

Extreme BABIPs tend to settle back to the .300 range.  Look at both these players during the last four seasons:


BABIPMichael BournHunter Pence
2008 .290 .301
2009 .366 .308
2010 .329 .304
2011 .377 .368


Pence's 2011 represents a big outlier.  Bourn reached this rare atmosphere before, in 2009.  A high BABIP helps to lead to a high batting average, and helped make this pair look desirable to other teams.  Don't trust this to last past this season, however.    This season, among batting qualifiers, the spread of BABIP is .200 to .387.  If you look at the last four seasons, however, that spread is down to .253 to .355.  The extremes just don't hold up.  The Astros did a good job of selling their players when they looked their best.


Ackley Hitting Backwards

Some hurlers pitch backwards; they throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts and vice versa.  Rookie Dustin Ackely of the Seattle Mariners hits backwards.

Most pitchers use a change up as an out pitch.  They train a batter's pattern recognition software to learn a fastball motion.  Once the hitter sees the fastball enough, the pitcher unleashes the change up.  The best throw the pitch with the same motion and arm speed, but drop the speed of the ball with their grip.  The batter swings early and misses, or hits the ball weakly.  In the majors this season, batters own a .339 weighted OBA (wOBA) on the fastball, .290 on the changeup.

So far, Ackely hits the change much better:


Fastball 0.277 0.358 0.349 0.323 0.189 0.000
Change Up 0.409 0.458 0.909 0.556 0.000 0.136


You can really see the reversal in the strikeout and home run numbers.  Fast pitches help batters hit home runs.  Dustin has yet to take a fast ball deep.  Change ups are supposed to fool batters into striking out, but Ackely doesn't get fooled by the pitch.

These numbers, of course, are based on small sample sizes.  If they hold up, however, it won't be good news for Dustin.  If pitchers discover they can just pump fastballs by him, they'll be happy to blow him away with heat.