As the Cleveland Indians move further into October, it becomes increasingly imperative that the whole lineup contributes if they want to win games and series. While October baseball is rife with unlikely heroes, it’s vital the offensive stalwarts that the team counted on all season get going. This is what is needed out of Mike Napoli. While he’s probably the third or fourth best hitter on the team at best at this point, the team needs some of that 34 home run power to show up and help break ties or break backs in the ALCS, and hopefully beyond. Judging from what he’ll be seeing against Toronto, he may be in for a long series.
Napoli has been slumping for the last month or so, hard. In 26 games he played in September, a span of 114 plate appearances, he logged a .612 OPS, far and away the worst month of the season for him. IN the ALDS he hit .167 and didn't walk once. While others in the lineup stepped up, there was something missing from the middle of the order. He still popped five home runs in September, but the other stuff, the ringing doubles off walls and hammered ground ball singles that drove in those 101 runs in 2016, those were lacking. One possible culprit is his sudden and utter inability to drive off-speed pitches. Here’s a graph of his exit velocity on the pitches he’s seen this year:
As you’ll note, he craters on off-speed in September. Hideously. Whether change-ups, splitters, or what have you, suddenly he’s not getting the strong, hard contact we’ve been used to. When he can't make a pitcher pay for hanging a change-up it makes him so vulnerable. But exit velocity isn’t everything. You could hit a ball 200 mph and if it’s straight down you’ll probably get out. If the catcher can dig it out of the ground of course. But here’s his launch angle on pitches throughout the year
There's a gentle rise on off-speed pitch launch angle in September, then a sudden leap in OctobeSpecifically he was hitting it at an eight-degree angle in September, which isn't ideal anyway. On pitches hit with those two exact data points, 75 mph at an eight-degree angle, the outcomes looked like this in 2016:
Thanks to MLB.com's Baseball Savant for this and the next field map. Balls hit like that generated a .383 batting average this year, but it’s also a lot of ground balls. Say what you will about Nap, he is not a speedster. Adding to that, he had a .182 BABIP in September, so there’s luck involved there, as well. While grounders go for hits more often than fly balls, he needs to beat shifts, especially with nobody on base. But it was still manageable. For October, where he had a more stark 61 mph exit velocity on off-speed at a 37 degree launch angle (rounding), that creates outcomes like this.
That is worse. No amount of speed would have you on base with all those pop outs. He was just missing so badly. As for why he’s suddenly struggled, it could be the long season is catching up with him, and he’s been cheating of late on fastballs to get around on them. By gearing up for the fastball, suddenly you’re super early on the off-speed and hit it straight up. He’s had such an incredible season that it was bound to trend down for a bit anyway. But this is seriously poor timing, and again, he's an older player. Rest may be vital.
The reason this is all a bad thing, especially in Game 1, is Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada. He has an absolutely killer change-up and has used it to great success this year. He throws it nearly 30% of the time and it complements his low 90’s fastball very well. Getting off to a good start is always nice in a seven game series and with Napoli already being a black hole of offense and now having to deal with this three times in game one, that will become tougher.
But more than that, the two pitches Napoli loves most are sinkers and sliders. He saw 505 sinkers this year and hit .293 with a .613 slugging percentage. He saw 465 sliders this year, hitting .312 with a .495 SLG. Neither of these pitches feature very heavily in the Toronto starter's’ repertoire, if at all.They throw a lot of four-seam and off-speed stuff, though Marcus Stroman and JA Happ do throw a slider sometimes, about 12% of the time. This is not to say he can’t find success, he also clubbed cutters in 2016, hitting .300 with a .650 SLG on the 189 that he saw. And Estrada threw that the third most of any of his pitches. But judging from his late struggles against change-ups and other off-speed pitches, it could be tough for him to start the series. You have to assume it's in his scouting report. Not that his striking out is a rarity, it would just be super helpful to the Indians if he could blast one or two in the meantime. Then again, isn’t it always? Having this extended time off after the sweep could be to his benefit as he rests up and can start hitting the change again.