BOSTON — Mike Napoli is hardly off to an ideal start with his new team, but he had a big hit yesterday.
He drove in Boston’s first two runs, bashing a bases-loaded double to the triangle in center field with no outs in the third inning.
Napoli’s laser and starter Clay Buchholz's dominance (he came within six outs of a no-hitter) led the Red Sox 5-0 over the Tampa Bay Rays here at Fenway Park.
As far as Napoli and the Red Sox are concerned, yesterday, hopefully, is the start of big things for the first baseman, who signed a one-year contract with Boston this offseason and has struggled some offensively.
Beyond his lackluster .217 batting average and two homers, he entered yesterday with an ugly wins above replacement (WAR) of -0.2 and a contact percentage when he swings of 67.9 percent.
His contact percentage is down from 74.1 percent during his tremendous 2011 season and below 70 percent for the first time during his career, meaning he is swinging and missing much more than usual.
Yes, it’s early in the season, only 11 games in, and too early to get bogged down with statistics. But Napoli’s on-base percentage, 25-30 home run power as well as his production against left-handed hurlers is essential to a successful Red Sox offense going forward. Those are three things that certainly interested Boston when signing Napoli.
He definitely made contact and delivered in a key situation yesterday.
“I feel like I’m getting better,” Napoli told The Eagle-Tribune about his swing-and-miss rate. “I’ve been having a little issue with my body taking over to where I’m losing my front side and my head coming off contact. So I’m just really focusing on BP and my tee work and seeing the ball to contact.”
The Red Sox especially need Napoli’s strong production against lefties because the team has struggled against southpaws early on, batting just .213 (29 for 136) with only a .287 on-base percentage.
Napoli has a career .378 on-base percentage with a .902 slugging percentage vs. southpaws.
His tee work and batting practice should help his repetition and muscle memory so he better controls his body during his swings.
“And keeping my head on the ball is going to make me see it better,” Napoli added.
The first baseman has batted cleanup in all 11 games so far, but he likely will shift to fifth in the order once DH David Ortiz (Achilles) is activated from the disabled list.
Ortiz, although a left-handed batter, has hit southpaws well each of the past two seasons, including a .320 average and .377 on-base percentage last season.
With both Ortiz and Napoli producing together in the middle of the order, that should result in Boston becoming much tougher to pitch around and better vs. lefty starters.
Napoli said Ortiz obviously will change the dynamic of the offense.
“He’s David Ortiz,” Napoli said. “He’s one of the greatest hitters. Having him in the lineup is definitely going to change things. But I think we’ve held our own.
“We’ve got a lot of good hitters, a lot of veteran hitters who understand,” Napoli said. “This is an unselfish team. So we’re going to do everything it takes to produce runs and do the little things. You can’t have individuals out there trying to pad their numbers. You have to sacrifice your at-bats for the team. When you get nine guys to do that, you’re going to produce and score runs.”
Overall, the offense has held its own with some lengthy at-bats and timely hitting. Sox hitters have done the job without Ortiz probably better than many envisioned they would.
Take for instance Saturday against reigning American League Cy Young award winner David Price. The Red Sox only scored one run on four hits and two walks against the tough lefty. But they were able to grind out at-bats, getting Price’s pitch count up to 106 to force him out of the game after 6.0 innings.
As for Napoli, he has hit better lately with four hits in his past three games.
“He’s gaining some consistency to his timing particularly on some pitches away,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “I think he’s starting to get more consistent plate coverage away which when he’s right, he’s driving those balls into right-center field or staying in the middle of the field. I think he’s gaining some consistency.”
Napoli hasn’t had much experience batting cleanup or fifth in his career. In 30 career games in the cleanup spot entering yesterday, he was batting .218 with a .273 on-base percentage.
He has spent the majority of his career batting sixth, seventh and eighth.
Napoli was never too curious before this year about how much his RBI production or how his other statistics would increase if he ever did bat in the middle of the order throughout an entire season.
“I always thought it would be the same,” Napoli said. “You might have a little more opportunity to drive in runs. But I don’t switch up my game any.
“Wherever I’m hitting, it’s always whatever the situation is,” he added.” If there’s a guy on second, I’m looking to drive the ball the other way, get him over, drive him in that way. If there’s a guy on third, same way, less than two outs, I’m going to do the same thing. I always have. It’s not like I’m changing my approach.”