The recently completed Angels road trip through Texas, Chicago, and St. Louis was mediocre. The team went 3-4 and did not seem to shake off the doldrums they have suffered all season.

On the other hand, for Mike Napoli, the road trip had some definite upside.

The Angel catcher played in six of the seven games on the trip. In those six games, Nap had 21 at-bats, five runs scored, eight hits (including one double and four home runs), and an eye-opening nine RBI. His line for the road trip:


Those numbers are not a typo—Mike Napoli posted a 1.458 OPS on the recently completed road trip.

When the Halos left Anaheim, Mike’s numbers sat at .230/.316/.402/.719. As they finished a winning series against Toronto with a Wednesday walk-off, that season line improved to .265/.353/.538/.891. That is nothing short of a remarkable turnaround for a hitter whose OPS was an anemic .569 as recently as May 3.

What is not remarkable about that turnaround is that all Angels fans should have expected it. Coming into the 2010 season, Mike Napoli had played 366 MLB games. In those games, he had a career OPS of .850 with 66 HR and 181 RBI.

To add to his offensive credentials, Napoli set the 2010 Cactus League on fire. In 18 spring games this year, Napoli blasted six homers and drove in 11 runs, putting up an impressive line of .280/.368/.760/1.128.

With numbers like that, it was not hard to see that Mike Napoli was going to be the Angels’ everyday catcher, starting on opening night.

Funny thing, however: It did not work out that way for Mike. Angels manager Mike Scioscia—who has never made his desire for a strong defensive catcher a secret—gave the opening night assignment to Jeff Mathis. Mathis would go on to start 10 of the Angels’ first 14 games.

Mathis played well in those games, without question; even his bat came to life, as Jeff has posted an impressive .851 OPS in 2010 play.

During that 14-game stretch, Napoli only got into six games (four as a starter), and his hot spring became a memory. Mike posted a meager line of .133/.235/.133/.369 to start 2010.

As all Angels fans are aware, Mathis went down the night of April 19 with a fractured right wrist (he is still on the disabled list with no definite return date, though he did resume light throwing on May 18). Napoli became the starting catcher by default, and at first he did not respond well with the bat.

In eight starting assignments between April 20 and April 27, Mike went 4-for-24 (.167 average) with zero extra-base hits and one RBI. The Angels were no doubt starting to wonder what happened to their superior offensive catcher’s superior offense.

Starting April 30 at Detroit, when Napoli went 1-for-3 with a triple, the Angels have not had to wonder any longer.

In that time span, Napoli has posted a .321 batting average, .391 on-base percentage, and .731 slugging percentage (for a gargantuan 1.122 OPS). The slugging percentage in that period has been amongst the American League’s best.

More importantly, it has the Angels lineup more productive, with its bottom half anchored by its slugging catcher (Napoli has batted seventh or eighth in all but three starts this season).

The Angels and their fans are also undoubtedly aware that Napoli is perhaps the streakiest hitter in the lineup. As hot as Mike has been of late, he has a penchant for going ice-cold for long stretches.

Looking back at Napoli’s 2009 campaign, one can see in June and July he posted an OPS of 1.002 and .919, respectively. On the other hand, in August and September he put up numbers of .696 and .731, respectively. Napoli’s big bat tends to deliver “feast or famine” numbers, to be sure.

There are questions that the Angels are going to need to answer when it comes to Napoli. First off, how do they try to keep that bat hot and temper his streaky tendencies? Next (and perhaps even more pressing): When Jeff Mathis comes back from the DL, how does Napoli continue to play every day?

There is no doubt that with the bat, Napoli has done everything asked of him to justify everyday play throughout his career; his 2010 numbers will no doubt give All-Star voters pause.

However, his career high in games played came in 2009—just 114. Before that, Mike had never played in more than 99 games (as a rookie in 2006).

The first question, how the Angels can keep Napoli’s bat hot, will be best answered by Napoli and Mickey Hatcher. Fans will be able to tell when Napoli is locked in with the bat, because he will consistently drive the ball to the opposite field with authority (as he did Sunday, driving a Chris Carpenter pitch deep into the right-center field stands at Busch Stadium).

The second question, where to put Napoli once Jeff Mathis comes back, is a difficult one. One true injustice in sports is when a starting player gets hurt and his replacement plays so well that the starter loses his job. If it were to happen to Mathis, it would not be the first time in the history of sports. It would be very surprising to see that happen to Mathis, however.

While Mike Napoli has made defensive strides since taking over in late April, there are few who would disagree that Mathis is the superior defender. As mentioned earlier, Mike Scioscia places high value on catcher defense.

There is little doubt, barring physical barriers, that Jeff Mathis will regain a significant portion of the catching duties upon his return.

So where to put Mike Napoli?  

One possible solution is to get Mike more consistent at-bats as the DH. There is justification for this: As a DH in 2009 (18 games and 72 ABs), Nap impressed with a .359 average, 1.024 OPS, three HR, and 11 RBI.

Oddly enough, 2009 provides the only substantial DH data for Napoli. Before 2009, he appeared as a DH just once, walking in one plate appearance as a rookie in 2006.

In 2010, Mike has been the DH just once and had a rough 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. However, getting Napoli more at-bats as the DH would require taking those ABs away from Hideki Matsui.

But when you consider Matsui’s 2010 OPS of .705 (and four extra-base hits since April 20th), that may not be the worst idea for the club to consider.

Here is one more idea, strictly from this columnist: What about giving Napoli a third baseman’s glove?

Before dismissing the idea entirely, consider the following. As mentioned on this very site, the Angels potentially have a long-term problem at third base unless Brandon Wood starts to produce (check Eric Denton’s item on the subject ).

No one appears ready to take over the position if Wood continues to falter, save Maicer Izturis (whose value is diminished if he is locked into one position).

Should someone decide to try moving Napoli, he would not be the first catcher to change positions. Craig Biggio came up as a catcher, as did Angels Hall of Famer Brian Downing.

There are even high-profile examples of catchers moving to third base: Johnny Bench played 195 career games at third with a .929 fielding percentage. Phil Nevin finally realized his All-Star potential after the Angels traded their backup catcher to San Diego and he became their everyday third baseman.

The idea of moving Napoli to third base is, admittedly, “outside the box” thinking that is unlikely to come true. What is true, however, is that the Angels are a better ballclub—with a better lineup—when a productive Mike Napoli is part of it.

For hitters as streaky as Mike, time spent on the bench can have resounding negative effects. Batters like Napoli need to hit their way through their slumps.

So to the Angels, I humbly suggest: Give Mike Napoli at least 450 at-bats for the first time in his career. Let’s see if he has that 35-plus-homer potential. Give him the ABs at catcher and at DH, and don’t be afraid to try new ideas to keep him in the lineup.

At 28 years old, Mike Napoli is in his prime years as a hitter and approaching his final year of arbitration before free agency arrives…isn’t it about time that the Angels find out how great he can be?

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