Mike Napoli of the Texas Rangers is congratulated by teammates after scoring on a three run homer by Mitch Moreland in the second inning against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Texas Rangers C/1B/DH Mike Napoli is currently leading the Major Leagues in what most would consider a very unlikely statistic.
A very unusual thing happened Thursday afternoon. The Texas Rangers - who have been playing so well in establishing a strong AL West division lead - faced the Los Angeles Angels and lost without scoring a run. The lost game meant a lost three-game series, as the Angels gained ground.
But a very not unusual thing also happened Thursday afternoon. Mike Napoli threw on some beefy gear and crouched behind the plate, and with Napoli putting down fingers, the Rangers allowed just one run - an unearned run, scoring against C.J. Wilson on a fielding error by Endy Chavez. Otherwise, Wilson spun zeroes.
Why isn't this unusual? Because Rangers pitchers have had success working with Napoli all season long. Napoli has now caught 234 innings, and his pitchers have posted a 2.34 ERA. For comparison, Taylor Teagarden has caught 65-1/3 innings of Rangers pitching, with a 3.03 ERA. And Yorvit Torrealba has caught 584 innings with a 4.43 ERA.
The Rangers played three games against the Angels. In the two games Napoli caught, the Angels scored zero runs and one run. In the one game Torrealba caught, the Angels scored nine runs.
And more, Napoli's catcher ERA, or cERA, isn't just good - it turns out it's the lowest cERA in all of baseball. A total of 68 different catchers have caught at least 100 innings on the year. Napoli's cERA leads them all.
That's interesting, right? - to learn that Mike Napoli is actually a good defensive catcher after all? Not so much the second part. But definitely the first part.
In statistical circles, cERA has generally been dismissed, at least in recent years. Nobody's ever been able to find much of a consistent effect or correlation. I don't think anybody ever went so far as to suggest that there's no skill to calling a game, but there's definitely a strong belief that it doesn't show up in cERA. There's just way too much noise, and too little signal.
So Napoli's cERA does not prove that he's a good game-caller. It doesn't suggest it. It doesn't even whisper it into a warm summer breeze. Vance Worley leads the Phillies' starters in ERA. Ryan Vogelsong leads Giants starters in ERA. The fact of Napoli's cERA is that meaningful. Or less meaningful.
But. For so many years with the Angels, Napoli and Jeff Mathis were the subjects of a big baseball argument. Napoli and Mathis both basically broke in as catchers in 2006. Over the next five years, Napoli would post an .831 OPS, while Mathis would post a .576 OPS. Napoli was a good, occasionally great hitter with power, while Mathis was one of the worst hitters in recent baseball history. And while Napoli didn't seem to be supremely gifted behind the plate, neither did Mathis; they both struggled to block balls, and they both struggled to throw out potential base-stealers. Based on the hard numbers we had, Napoli appeared to be the better player by a considerable margin.
And yet they more or less split time. Despite all the evidence that Napoli was better, Mathis caught just as much because Mathis was seen as the better game-caller. When Mathis caught -- the Angels said -- the pitchers were better, and so the Angels won. Napoli was worse. Napoli was unpolished. The numbers bore it out, too. With Mathis behind the plate, the Angels routinely posted a low ERA and a good record; with Napoli, not as much.
If the Angels were to be believed, Mathis' game-calling edge made him at least even with Napoli, if not superior. If all the other evidence were to be believed, the Angels were only hurting themselves by playing Mathis as often as they did. The pro-Mathis argument basically came down to cERA, and as was already discussed, cERA is not a popular statistic. Nobody is comfortable citing cERA with even a sliver of confidence.
Because of their job share, Mathis and Napoli became the dual faces of the cERA stat. If ever there were an example of cERA being meaningful, it would be the Angels' catching situation.
So, the fact that Mike Napoli's cERA leads the league right now? Yeah, it's interesting.
It's nothing more than that. But it's something to play around with in your head. As possibly or probably irrelevant as it is, for those who previously occupied a strong pro-Napoli stance, it's just totally perfect.