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Mike Napoli and the quest for 30 home runs

The Indians right-handed slugger has only one extra-base hit in the last seventeen games. What gives?

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

On August 11th, Mike Napoli went 4-for-4 with two doubles and his 29th home run. Eighteen days and seventeen games later, the Cleveland Indians are still waiting for the 30th #PartyAtNapolis this season.

Seventeen games is the longest dinger-free streak of the season for Napoli, but such droughts aren’t unheard of in his career. Just last season, Napoli once went 24 games without launching one over the fence.

Readers who have spent more than five minutes on Let’s Go Tribe are probably familiar with the "30 Dingerz" meme, which originated as a way to poke fun at fans who fixated on the Indians’ lack of a serious power bat since the days of Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore. While there are other ways to generate offense and build a winning team, it’s undeniable that a player capable of hitting more than 30 home runs adds serious value to an offense.

While hitting at least 30 home runs feels inevitable for Napoli — he would need to finish the regular season on a 50-game no-dingers stretch in order to miss the mark — the concern ought to be whether or not this is a slump or a rut. If it’s a slump, we can expect it to snap; a rut, this late in the season, may be inescapable for the 34-year-old, and could affect his production during September and October.

In his first 105 appearances, Napoli hit .261/.346/.531 with a .332 BABIP and a wRC+ of 132. Since August 11th: .226/.295/.245 with a .300 BABIP and a wRC+ of (gulp) 48. Napoli's only extra-base hit in that time is a double on the fifteenth. He's walking a little bit less, but striking out much less as well. It appears that Napoli is putting more balls into play but with much less power over the last two weeks. Fortunately, Fangraphs tracks batted ball numbers, so we can view a little bit more data to see if I'm just lying with statistics:

April 4th - August 11th

GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB IFH% BUH% Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
0.85 18.8 % 37.3 % 43.9 % 10.7 % 25.9 % 6.3 % 0.0 % 48.2 % 32.2 % 19.6 % 16.9 % 41.6 % 41.6 %

August 12th - Present

GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB IFH% BUH% Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
0.63 22.5 % 30.0 % 47.5 % 15.8 % 0.0 % 0.0 % 0.0 % 47.5 % 27.5 % 25.0 % 20.0 % 47.5 % 32.5 %

When I think of a slump, I think of a string of bad luck, whether that's a string of strikeouts or a stretch of hard-hit balls finding leather. What we see from Napoli since August 11th are fewer hard-hit balls and an increase in medium and softly hit balls*. While he is pulling the same number of balls, more are squirting to the opposite field. Finally, he is popping up more balls on the infield, and hitting more fly balls overall.

*Couple of things here. 1) The ratings for batted balls are done by humans, and not the same humans, so the data is not necessarily infallible. 2) Most of the English language is completely devoid of words to describe the space between things, the middle ground, things that are not superlative. And so we are stuck with average"and medium and Goldilocks zones.

What does all of this mean? To me, intuitively, it does appear that Napoli's bat isn't quite as quick as it's been for most of the season. The Indians lost an off-day during this stretch to make up a rainout from the beginning of the year, so perhaps that combined with the unending march of 162 games is starting to impact Napoli more now that he's a little bit older. If that's true, is there any evidence of this last season? It seems to me that a 33-year-old may have a slightly more subtle drop-off than 34-year-old.

2015 Napoli, April 6th - August 11th

.204/.305/.381, .250 BABIP, 85 wRC+, 13 HR

GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB IFH% BUH% Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
1.12 16.3 % 44.2 % 39.5 % 10.9 % 14.1 % 9.7 % 0.0 % 36.9 % 38.2 % 24.9 % 22.3 % 48.5 % 29.2 %

2015 Napoli, April 6th - August 11th

.311/.407/.541, .346 BABIP, 157 wRC+, 5 HR

GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB IFH% BUH% Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
0.67 12.3 % 35.1 % 52.6 % 13.3 % 16.7 % 20.0 % 0.0 % 49.1 % 26.3 % 24.6 % 22.8 % 45.6 % 31.6 %

Not really any evidence of decline there, although it is a pretty wonderful look at what happens when the BABIP monkey gets off of a power hitter's back and he starts pulling more balls.

So, I'm not sure that I've uncovered anything definitive enough to say for sure whether Napoli is just slumping or struggling to swing his way out of a rut. In the same way that a hitter can rip balls directly at defenders, perhaps it is possible that a hitter might take the same approach at the plate with the same quality of swing but simply endure a few weeks of bad luck on contact. I also admit that I'm not exactly the world's foremost authority on hitting or interpreting data sets, so if something that you've seen here (or elsewhere) jumps out at you, please feel free to point it out in the comments or in a fan post.

Even if Napoli somehow fails to break the legendary barrier, he's been a valuable asset to the Indians this season. His offensive contributions up to this point helped to lift the team, and his leadership and experience in the clubhouse even more so. No matter what happens in regards to an extension during the off-season, I think we'll all cherish the many times we've been able to attend a #PartyAtNapolis.

I just hope that there are, you know, fifteen more this year.