Mike Napoli is built more like a bouncer at a bar on the wrong side of town than a Major League Baseball player. His legs are too short and his torso is too long and fleshy and his arms hang from his shoulders like a couple of oversized porterhouse steaks.
But the dude can swing the lumber. I was watching Sunday’s game in Fenway Park when Napoli blasted a mammoth ninth-inning home run off Red Sox reliever Michael Bowden off the back of the wall behind the center-field bleachers, a spot Red Sox announcer Jerry Remy said he could remember only a couple of players hitting, Bo Jackson and Jim Rice.
Playing catcher on Sunday, Napoli went 2-for-3 on the day with two walks as the Rangers won 11-4. He raised his season batting line to .293/.392/.583, with 23 home runs in 307 at-bats. He doesn’t have enough plate appearances to quality for the league leaders, but if he did he’d rank fourth in the American League in OPS behind only Jose Bautista, David Ortiz and Miguel Cabrera.
By the way, Angels catchers are hitting .195, with a .259 on-base percentage and 29 runs scored. Indeed, the fate of the AL West may have turned on the day the Angels decided to pursue Vernon Wells. In order to more easily absorb Wells’ bloated salary, Napoli was included in the trade, probably something manager Mike Scioscia was fine with, considering he was hardly a fan of Napoli’s mediocre defensive skills. But the trade managed to simultaneously weaken the Angels at two positions: Not only has Wells been horrible, but getting rid of Napoli might have meant more playing time for Scioscia pet Jeff Mathis, who may look like a major league catcher but hits like a rhododendron bush.
To make matters worse, the Blue Jays flipped Napoli to the Rangers. Ron Washington has had no issues rotating Napoli in at catcher, where he’s started 44 games -- and even thrown out 42 percent of runners attempting to steal while allowing only one passed ball.
As usual, Napoli has put up good numbers without much fanfare. He’s a favorite of stat analysts who love his power and on-base ability. He’s always a favorite of the fans, who love his big swing and Joe Six-Pack mentality. But as a part-time player, he’s not always fully appreciated, which makes him the captain of our 2011 Unsung All-Stars, those guys on contending teams who maybe haven’t received much in the way of national attention.
Ryan Roberts, 3B/2B, Diamondbacks: An 18th-round draft pick out of college, Roberts has faced an uphill battle in finding a regular home in the majors. He hit decently in the minors but didn’t really have a position and the Blue Jays released him after a couple cups of coffee. He played one game with the Rangers in 2008. Arizona signed him for the 2009 season and he played well in a utility role, hitting .279 and destroying left-handers. But the D-backs didn’t fall in love and he spent most of 2010 at Reno. Melvin Mora was supposed to be the team’s regular third baseman in 2011, which worked out about as well it should have been expected to. Luckily, manager Kirk Gibson had Roberts around and at age 30, he’s produced a solid .259/.354/.449 line, including a big home run on Sunday that tied the game 1-1 to jump-start Arizona’s 4-1 victory over San Francisco that give the D-backs a seven-game lead in the NL West.
Nick Swisher, RF, Yankees: Hey, it’s a crowded locker room for attention and Swisher’s excellent season has gone under the radar. He hit .226 with just one home run in April, but entering Sunday he was hitting .277/.396/.496 with 20 home runs since May 1. FanGraphs rates him as the third-best right fielder in the majors in 2011, behind only Bautista and Justin Upton.
Jhonny Peralta, SS, Tigers: I’ve sung Peralta’s praises on several occasions, but everyone just keeps talking about this Verlander guy. All Peralta has done is hit over .300 with power and played surprisingly well on defense. He’s been the best shortstop in the AL.
John Mayberry Jr., OF, Phillies: Scouts drooled over Mayberry’s tools for years, but the production never arrived. Now 27, he’s settled in as a platoon player, but his ability to mash lefties -- he’s slugging over .600 against them -- adds much-needed balance to a lineup that has relied too heavily on lefties Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez in recent seasons.
Gerardo Parra, LF, Diamondbacks: Parra has been a regular on "Baseball Tonight’s" Web Gems, but while his defense has been legitimately outstanding, Parra’s bat has been the bigger surprise. While he lacks the power you normally want from a left fielder, he’s sliced and diced opponents enough to hit .296 and register a .358 on-base percentage. Upton may be Arizona’s MVP candidate, but Roberts and Parra are huge reasons for their success.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C, Red Sox: The Rangers gave up on the one-time top prospect, trading him last summer to Boston. He didn’t play much in 2010 with Boston, but the Red Sox decided to give the big switch-hitter the opportunity to become their regular catcher. It looked like the wrong move when Salty’s average dipped under .200 in early May, but Terry Francona showed patience and now he’s hitting .251 with a .472 slugging percentage, the third-best slugging percentage among major league catchers.
Randy Wolf, P, Brewers: Newcomers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum have gotten more attention (well, along with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder), but don’t be surprised if the 35-year-old lefty starts Game 1 of the postseason for the Brewers, especially if they play the Braves, a team that has struggled against left-handers. Wolf is 11-9 with a 3.58 ERA.
Eric O'Flaherty, P, Braves: Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel have been the awesome 1-2 punch for the Braves in the eighth and ninth innings, but O’Flaherty has given them a third lights-out reliever, with a 1.15 ERA, 26 holds and just two home runs in 62.2 innings. He might not have the overpowering fastballs of Venters and Kimbrel, but he’s quietly been just as effective … and important.
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