When the Cleveland Indians signed first baseman Mike Napoli to one-year, $7 million dollar deal last December, it almost seemed like a lateral move. Napoli is very similar to now designated hitter Carlos Santana in that they both have relatively low averages, high on-base percentages, and high slugging percentages. Essentially, they are both going either walk or hit an extra-base hit.
However, Napoli has more value than what shows up in a box score every night: He takes a ton of pitches and plays much better defense than Santana. It is still early, obviously, but after two games we are already seeing the value of playing Napoli and Santana back-to-back in the lineup. They both eat up a ton of pitches. Occasionally, it may result in a strikeout but sometimes, like last night, it will result in some magnificent things.
Combined, over the first two games, Santapoli (or Naptana) have seen 85 pitches. Before even accounting for what they do with the ball in play, the two of them alone have almost accounted for driving up a starter's pitch count enough to knock them out of the game.
The value of this was especially evident on Opening Day when Napoli worked an 11-pitch at-bat against David Price that opened the door for the Indians to score their only two runs of the game later that inning. Napoli didn't even do anything himself in that instance -- he struck out. When he does do something, we get a result like last night.
Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz was just plain off last night, so it may be more than just working up the pitch count, but in the first inning, Napoli and Santana immediately got to work. Napoli worked a five-pitch at-bat in the first inning that resulted in a walk and Santana followed that up with a three-run home run after five pitches. Then, later on in the game with the score tied 6-6, Napoli hit a home run off reliever Junichi Tazawa -- five pitches, a game-winning home run. No matter what these two do, they are not making it easy on opposing pitchers.
More than just what happens in the batter's box, Santana appears to be just plain happy as a designated hitter. Maybe it's the fact that the does not have to try and play in the field, or deal with the pressure and constant fan harassment that comes from being generally terrible at playing first base. Whatever the reason, the fact that Napoli is now the one dealing with first base duties appears to already be paying off.
There is always going to be the need to be aggressive, but the combination of Napoli and Santana are going to do their part to make the game easier for everyone else all season long. I do not care how or where they are in the lineup, just keep these two back-to-back. It'll be worth it.