Both managers were looking for ways to generate offense in Sunday night’s Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park, so the Tigers’ Jim Leyland benched shortstop Jose Iglesias for Jhonny Peralta and the Red Sox’ John Farrell benched Daniel Nava and Mike Napoli for Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp.
Think about the Napoli decision.
Napoli is the righthanded power hitter the Red Sox acquired to hit long homers at Fenway Park. Yet in Game 2 of the ALCS, he wasn’t in the lineup. Napoli entered Sunday night’s game hitting .125 in the postseason with no homers and 1 RBI. He was red hot in September, but the layoff has cooled him off considerably. Napoli has led his teams to six postseason appearances in the last seven years. In 37 postseason games entering Sunday night, he’d hit .250 with five home runs and 20 RBIs and 18 walks for a .366 OBP.
He led the Texas Rangers in the 2011 playoffs with a .328 average, starting 17 games, mostly behind the plate, during their run to the World Series, which they lost.
“I want to be in there,” said Napoli after a vigorous round of batting practice before the game. “It’s not my decision. John’s got a lineup in there that he feels gives us the best chance to win. I wish I were in it, but I’m not. Hopefully I can be ready for when I’m called upon, whether it’s late in the game or the next game.”
Napoli is working under a one-year contract. The $8 million he earned in incentives, added to his $5 million base salary, gave him $13 million this season, which was the salary he was supposed to make when the Red Sox originally signed him for three years and $39 million before tearing up that agreement because a degenerative hip condition showed up in his physical.
Napoli, who no longer catches, has been a pleasant surprise in the field, where he’s put up Gold Glove-worthy numbers — including a 9.6 UZR, which ranks first among AL first basemen. Napoli has a higher UZR than the departed Adrian Gonzalez. That includes the usually slick-fielding James Loney with the Tampa Bay Rays and Eric Hosmer with the Kansas City Royals, generally regarded as two of the best fielding first basemen in the American League in the absence of Mark Teixeira, who missed most of the season for the Yankees.
Napoli knocked in a career high 92 runs this season, and had a career-high 129 hits. He had 38 doubles and 63 extra-base hits in 498 at-bats. He played in 139 games, the second-most in his career. He had 31 bases-loaded RBIs, the most in the majors.
So why was a guy with those credentials not in the middle of the Red Sox order in Game 2?
Farrell believed that Napoli likely would be overmatched by Max Scherzer, against whom he was 1 for 13 in his career, so he inserted the lefthanded-hitting Carp, who was 2 for 8 vs. Scherzer entering the game. Gomes entered 2 for 6 against Scherzer while Nava was 1 for 9.
So if you go strictly by the numbers, the moves made sense.
But sometimes a middle-of-the order hitter will turn things around.
Because Napoli sat in such an important game has to raise the question of whether the team will offer him a $14.1 million qualifying offer for next season. Napoli’s production has been even better than Red Sox senior adviser Bill James’s projection for him — .248, 29 home runs, and 75 RBIs.
“I feel fine at the plate,” Napoli said, as he hit balls to right field, then a bunch to left in BP. “Like I said, I want to play every game. I never want to sit out, but I understand the matchups and the things that are important in preparing for a game.”
Napoli has not rocked the boat the entire season and he’s not about to now. He made a great play in the field in Game 1 and picked Peralta off second base with a great diving play and a heads-up throw. When Napoli has struggled at the plate, he’s been able to give the Red Sox defense.
So the Red Sox were actually sacrificing a little defense with Carp in Game 2. But as Leyland pointed out in his decision to start Peralta at shortstop, you have to give up something to get something. In his case, Leyland was willing to give up range and defense for Peralta’s bat. He did it in Game 5 against Oakland in the divisional series and it worked famously.
Farrell’s Red Sox managed one hit in Game 1, and that came in the ninth inning. So he, too, was looking to give up something to get something in return.
It’s understandable that teams always go by matchup numbers throughout the season. It just seems that at this time of the year, there should not be an emphasis on that type of data. The postseason is about adrenaline and players doing things out of the ordinary to win for their teams.
Napoli’s history suggests he’s that type of player.
Because he didn’t start Game 2 possibly speaks to the fact that Farrell and the baseball ops department, which helps analyze matchups, don’t feel entirely comfortable about the player they signed for this very situation and setting.
On a cool October night, Mike Napoli, the power-hitting rigthanded hitter the team acquired for this very situation, wasn’t in the starting lineup.