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On Brandon Moss, Mike Napoli, and perceived value

A year after Brandon Moss, Mike Napoli is making fans smile. What is he doing that Moss never could?

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Indians definitely have a type when it comes to free agents. This time a year ago they employed a big, broad-shouldered, slugging RF/1B/DH with a beard, hoping he’d be the dose of offense that would get them from miserable mediocrity to respectability. The Brandon Moss Experiment didn’t work out, though it did turn into Rob Kaminsky, so that at least is a nice solution.

This year the Tribe tried again with Mike Napoli. A player of similar stature and beardiness, though right-handed and can’t play right field (though neither could Moss, really), Napoli is that punch in the lineup now that Moss was brought in to be, then. We’re barely a month into the season though, and Napoli is everything Brandon Moss was supposed to be, right? At least, that’s how it seems, how it feels.

Moss was brought in to be the hammer, the homer launching anchor to drive in the doubles-hitting Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis in front of him, to strike terror into the hearts of the opposing pitcher when men lurked on base. He was going to unlock the Earl Weaver Offense for the Tribe, three-run homers everywhere. Instead, he hit .217/.288/.407 before being traded, though that did include 15 home runs. He wasn’t the only thing wrong with the offense - Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher being garbage didn’t help, neither did Yan Gomes’ knee injury - but he was definitely the kind of anchor they didn’t want hanging around their necks.

Meanwhile, Napoli, at least in the eyes of fans, has been great. A key piece while Brantley was gone, and sure to be excellent all year long if the chatter is to be believed. But it’s curious -- through April last year Moss hit .238/.310/.492, with four home runs. To this point in April, Napoli is hitting .219/.278/.438 with four home runs. That, as the classic saying goes, is worse. And yet, perception has it that he, and not Moss, has been a boon to the team.

In life, timing is everything. Napoli seems to be very timely in his hitting, doesn’t he? Just the other day in MInnesota, he clocked a home run to tie the game in the ninth and force extra innings. He’s hit all four homers when the Indians were either tied or within two runs of leading. That leaves an impression on fans. Last year in his first month with the Tribe, only one of those four homers Moss hit did anything important to the lead. One was to increase the lead to 2-0, April 17th against the Twins in a game the Indians would ultimately lose 3-2. Another came in an 11-5 loss to theRoyals, the other two came in a 13-1 mauling of the Tigers.

How’s this for timeliness too. In April last year, Moss had 14 RBIs. Napoli has 11 this month. While RBIs as a judgement of skill are a waste of time, in an instance they drive a viewer’s opinion. Of those 11 Napoli has this year, seven have either been driven in in a win or in a game decided by two runs or less. That gives the vibe of clutchness. Moss meanwhile, had 14 RBIs in April last year, his chance to make a first impression. Three of those were done in closely decided games. He even had seven in that 13-1 game in Detroit. It’s never anyone’s fault, good or bad, when they drive in RBIs since they’re so contextual, but Napoli’s sense of the moment sure has worked in his favor.

This is how you make an impression on fans. Overall, Moss was better than Napoli has been so far for Cleveland, at least in how the numbers broke out. One thing Napoli does do, and has done better than Moss over either’s career, is work pitches in each at-bat. Moss has averaged 3.95 pitches per at-bat in his career and 3.89 in 2015 between Cleveland and St. Louis, while Napoli is at 4.35 for his career, 4.35 last year and 4.87 pitches per at-bat in 2016. WHen a batter sees a lot of pitches, especially early in the season, he’s seen as a battler, a grinder, someone who is going to eventually do some damage. Which Napoli hsa of course, but in terms of what actually happened, Moss’s 33 extra-base hits last year as an Indian certainly deserve some credence.

Perception is reality, is a saying an old hippie said to me once. Is it insane and idiotic? Sort of, but it’s also the basis of the movie "The Matrix", and that was a landmark in film history for many reasons. In terms of the Indians though, it’s interesting to think how the whole Moss "era" is so swiftly being brushed under the rug, almost like it never happened. If remembered at all, it was simply another mis-step by the front office. Perhaps it’s because Napoli seems to actually show emotion when he’s playing, perhaps it’s because he has a pretty great glove at first, perhaps it’s simply because the team isn’t seven games under .500 to end April. Winning cures everything. Napoli actually being central in those wins though, that’s raising him to folk hero status at an accelerated rate. He's been the one driving in the runs, hiting the key homer, being emotionally invested. Moss was none of those things, and in the public eye, even if the stat sheet says differently, that can make all the difference.

The Indians have a slugger who also has right-handed power though, so as long as the fanbase is appeased for a bit, who’s to complain? Would it be nice if his OPS actually approached .850? Sure. But what is this, Fantasy Island? We take what we can get, and timely home runs and RBIs are enough for now. The walks and hits will come, they have to with how Napoli works counts and clobbers when he makes contact, but isn't it funny how players can make a first impression, and that's all we see forever more?