When the Red Sox signed Mike Napoli away from the Rangers following the 2012 season, there was little complexity about his profile. The man could mash.
As for the finer points of the game? Whatever.
Napoli arrived in Boston with the public reputation of being a subpar defender at both catcher and first base, a player with middle-of-the-order power (if not experience after spending his career in the lower third of the lineup) whose game was defined by an unbuttoned, swing-from-the-heels approach at the plate.
In their research on him, the Red Sox had concluded that he had a chance to be an adequate defender at first base and believed that he was underrated as a baserunner. Still, their desire to sign him was all about his offensive approach, the grinding at-bats that drove up opponents' pitch counts and yielded home runs in bunches.
Napoli now has become far more than that. In his second season in Boston, he's been the Sox' best player, someone whose diversity of skills has made him the unexpected embodiment of everything the team values in a player.
Offensively, he's been the closest thing to a constant that the Red Sox lineup has had this year. He leads the team in average (.289), OBP (.417) and slugging (.482). He leads the majors with 4.68 pitches per plate appearances. A conscientious effort to improve his two-strike approach (after he set a Red Sox record last year for most punchouts in a season) has resulted in a decline in his strikeout rate from 32.4 percent of plate appearances to 23.7 percent.
It's mostly due to his offense that baseball-reference.com pegs him as the fifth-most valuable player in the game (as measured by its Wins Above Replacement/WAR) calculations, someone who already has been worth 1.5 wins relative to a replacement-level first baseman.
Napoli also now is recognized as more than the embodiment of the team's philosophy in the batter's box. Consider what Red Sox prospect Mookie Betts had to say when asked about players whose games he wanted to use as a model for his own.
"I've actually watched Napoli in spring training, because [third base and infield coach Brian Butterfield] told me to watch him," said Betts. "He's one of the best baserunners. He's not fast, but he understands how to run the bases and he knows when he needs to go first to third. He knows when to tag and how to tag in all situations."
In Boston, Napoli's attention to the details of the game has made him a player who, like Dustin Pedroia, is held up as a role model for younger members of the organization. Napoli is aware of that status and is mindful of the responsibility that it entails.
"When I play the game, I play the game to show the young guys how I believe you should play the game and how hard you should play the game, and I like being somebody that people could look to [to] learn," he said. "I love talking about the game. I talk to [Xander Bogaerts] all the time, I talk to Will [Middlebrooks]. It's just something that I had when I was coming up [with the Angels]. I had Darin Erstad, Tim Salmon, Garret Anderson, [John] Lackey, Adam Kennedy. I had so many guys that I looked up to and how they played the game and they showed me the way to play the game.
"For me," he added, "I feel like I want to do that for other people, too, to keep the game going and just keep the line moving. I was taught the good way, so I want to be able to do the same thing. I love the game. When I'm out there on the field, it's our job and I want to do it the best I possibly can and be able to show the way for the young guys in the organization how to play the game because people look up to you. I don't know who's watching me that day or what's going on, so I try to do it on a daily basis to show the way and lead by example. … I want people to look at me and say, 'Whoa, look at what he just did,' and fire them up. I want to do that."
BEYOND THE REPUTATION
When Napoli joined the Red Sox, the one-dimensional nature of his reputation was real, even if misguided.
"I think that's a stereotype," said Butterfield. "I think we all have a tendency to look at a guy who hits home runs and you are attracted to that, a guy that can hit a ball in the seats, and people lose sight of the fact that there are other parts of the game that he excels at. Unless you're paying real close attention, you're going to miss it."
It didn't take long for the Red Sox' infield guru to learn that the stereotype did not hold. Instead, as Napoli prepared to shed his catcher's gear for a first baseman's mitt, Butterfield found a willing and eager student whom he quickly realized would have the aptitude and desire to become a very good everyday first baseman.
"Early on in spring training last year when I was first getting to know him, in baseball conversations on Field 162 as we call our defensive work, he outlined the things he felt like were important to him as a defender," said Butterfield. "We just talked about baseball and it was obvious to me right away, right away before we even played our first spring training game last year, that he was a complete player -- a baserunner, defender, he was going to take complete pride in his work. He was always hunting me down in spring training, always hunting me down to get extra work."
It was not just the volume of work that Butterfield saw. It was the manner in which Napoli approached his routines.
Defensively, he engages in what Butterfield describes as "perfect practice … meticulous practice" to hone his actions at what has become a very comfortable position where he can excel. His progress as a first baseman reached a point were Butterfield ignored Napoli's protestations and made him stop taking grounders by last September in order to keep the first baseman -- who was managing plantar fasciitis at the time -- healthy for the duration of the year.
His work at that position has made him a standout defender, something that was backed by advanced defensive metrics but still couldn't gain Napoli consideration as one of the top three candidates for a Gold Glove at the position based, perhaps, on old perceptons.
"I think a lot of people, the second half of the year, were surprised by looking at some of the defensive statistics. Actually, a couple coaches came up to me and they go, 'We've got Napoli as our top-rated first baseman.' And I go, 'Well, he is. He's the best first baseman, I think, in the American League.' Guys were falling down, looking at me, going, 'What?' " recalled Butterfield. "I said, 'Pay attention to him. Watch him this series. Watch the way he's on top of everything he does defensively, watch the way he moves around the base and picks up his infielders, watch the way he makes the 3-6, watch the stuff he does between innings to prepare.' I think it's just people overlooking it a little bit. But I think through what he did last year he's starting to develop a reputation where people are paying a little more attention to it. I don't know how much. Maybe still not enough. But I think people are starting to understand."
The evidence of Napoli's precision is found elsewhere as well.
"Walk by his locker," said Butterfield. "He's detailed with the way he hangs his shirts. He's meticulous. His shoes are in there meticulously, his uniform is hung meticulously. That's who he is.
"He'll never be asked to bunt, but he'll lay two bunts down at the start of B.P. that are just perfect -- perfect technique," he continued. "He gets it down the first base line, then he simulates a first and second, gets it down the third base line and does it just perfect, every single day. I tell our young guys, 'Watch this guy bunt,' and he won't be asked to bunt until the day he takes the uniform off."
Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the Red Sox' appreciation for Napoli's game has come on the bases. The assumption would be that a man with a lumberjack's beard who wields a cudgel at the plate would be all about brute force rather than nuance, a lumberer on the bases whose preferred route to home would be a modest jog on a home run, either by himself or someone else.
Indeed, it's telling to hear about Napoli's favorite moment from the Red Sox' run to a championship last year. It wasn't the game-winning homer in Game 3 of the ALCS off of Justin Verlander that propelled the Sox to a 1-0 win. It wasn't even his epic launch off of Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez in Game 4, when he blasted a rocket some 460 feet to straightaway center field.
For Napoli, the highlight of last October took place in the Game 5 victory in which he launched that massive homer, but instead later in that same game. With the Sox up 3-0, Napoli clubbed a one-out double. He broke on contact and advanced to third on a comebacker on which a lesser break would have prevented him from moving up. Then, with two outs, he got a great read on a Sanchez offering in the dirt and, even though the ball didn't stray far from beaten-up Tigers catcher Alex Avila, he broke aggressively and slid across the plate just ahead of the flip to score the Sox' fourth run -- a tally that proved decisive in an eventual 4-3 win in a pivotal Game 5.
"It was awesome. I talk to Butter all the time about 90 feet. Anyway you can go 90 feet in the game to potentially let you score a run," said Napoli. "We actually had a conversation the other day about it and I get chills right now thinking about the whole play, because everyone wants to talk about the home run I hit, but we won 4-3 because I scored 90 feet on the passed ball. Nobody will ever talk about that, but that's the kind of stuff that we talk about and is important in this game that a lot of people don't understand. They always think about the homer. They saw the big bomb, but they don't remember that."
AN ORGANIZATION, A HOME
The Red Sox remember it. It's part of the reason why Napoli has become a talking point for younger players, why the Red Sox wanted Napoli to sit with Bogaerts during a game in spring training -- when neither player was in the contest -- to discuss the finer points of baserunning.
It is a role that Napoli embraces and appreciates.
"It's awesome. It's something really cool. That's what you should want in a player. You should want to be looked at," said Napoli. "I want to be looked at as an all-around, great baseball player. Not just a great power hitter. I take pride in my defense. I want to get better every day, so for [Butterfield] to [tell young players to pay attention to his work] and have kids watch me, I think it's cool. I love it. It gives me a good feeling inside. It's just something you should want as a player."
The fact that the Red Sox view Napoli as a role model -- that they have such a profound appreciation for his game that they encourage young players to follow his lead -- reinforces why Napoli was so intent on returning to Boston when he reached free agency after the World Series run.
There was interest from other teams, including a Rangers club with whom Napoli had nearly won a World Series in 2011 and for whom Napoli embraced playing. But everything about Boston permitted Napoli to feel at home.
He is in a city that he loves, in an organization where he is viewed as a a leader and the embodiment of nearly everything that the team values both on the field and in the clubhouse. He has been entrusted with middle-of-the-order responsibility -- a lineup pillar in the cleanup spot -- yet he is also understood to be considerably more than a slugger.
"I think it's a great way to be as a professional baseball player, it's a great way to be as a major leaguer and he's a great guy to carry the torch for us," explained Butterfield. "He really is."
All of that contributed to Napoli's determination this past offseason to remain with the Red Sox, to re-sign on a two-year, $32 million deal even though he could have landed a deal for a longer term. On and off the field, he feels as if he's now found his home.
"I know the city now, I know where I'm going. I just bought a place to live. So it's just a better feeling. It's like home, where you spend most of your time. I'm probably going to stay here in the offseason this year because I bought the place, but just knowing everyone's personality around the clubhouse and front office to the coaching staff, it's comfortable," said Napoli. "I've been fortunate enough to win everywhere I've gone and we won a championship. I saw that we had a lot of guys coming back and I felt like we could win [again] here.
"I love the city, how the fans came to me, so I told [agent Brian Grieper], 'Let's get something done, something done fair.' I got paid a lot of money, let's not just push that to the side. That's basically how the conversation went with me and Brian. I wanted to get signed early. I didn't want to wait, especially after this offseason. I wanted to get it done and we work well together and they are awesome in the front office. We just got it done and I couldn't be happier."