It is no secret that Mike Napoli is having a bad season. One of the biggest reasons for this poor season is hidden in his swing. Damian Dydyn shows us that Mike Napoli is way off balance when compared to last year.
A couple of weeks ago, Rick Rowand looked at Mike Napoli’s 2015 season and concluded that he is unlikely to return to being the hitter he was during the 2013 season. There are a lot of ways we can look at this, but one of the most alarming trends is that he is hitting a lot more fly balls at the expense of line drives. Less hard contact usually means fewer hits and Napoli is no exception, but what is the reason for his drop in line drive percentage? More importantly, can the problem be fixed?
In order to examine his swing, we spent quite a bit of time watching video from the last two and a half seasons. Animated gifs and still images will be used to highlight what some of the changes are from the 2014 and 2015 seasons. They are all pitches left out over the plate and at least belt-high to minimize the impact of the pitch location on his swing. We are focusing on two pairs of at bats: For the front view, the swings were from June 18, 2014 and June 16, 2015. Both balls were hit to center field. The swing on the left led to a home run, the swing on the right was a deep flyout. The side view shows swings from April 21, 2014 and May 22, 2015. Both swings led to home runs to left-center. In both instances, the 2014 swing is on the left and the 2015 swing is on the right.
For the sake of consistency, all clips are from home games. NESN uses a straight-on camera view of home plate that is great for breaking down a swing and using clips from the same camera wells minimizes the margin for error when taking measurements.
Here is an animation of the front view slowed down a bit:
There are some troubling differences here which will become more apparent as we look at individual frames. The first thing that jumps out is that relative to a vertical plane between his shoulder and the ground, the angle of his torso in the 2015 swing (on the right) is much sharper:
He plants his foot closer to the first base line in the 2015 swing. His front leg crosses over his back leg and the angle of his left leg moves to the other side of the vertical plane that runs parallel to his body. Because of this, he is more off-balance as the bat moves through the point of contact with the ball.
If you are having trouble visualizing this, try standing the way Napoli is in each side of the image. Start with your feet slightly apart and your left foot 12 to 18 inches ahead of your right in a slight squat. Now cross your left leg in front of your right just a bit and try to maintain that squat.
In addition to throwing off his balance, this lowers Napoli’s back shoulder a bit which means he is swinging from a lower point. Using the plate – which is 17 inches across – it is possible to estimate the distance between Napoli’s back shoulder and the ground where his back foot is planted:
With his back shoulder closer to the ground, his swing is going to start lower and he is more likely to get under the ball. The difference here is 3.73 inches, which may not seem like a lot, but when a few millimeters can mean the difference between a line drive and a fly ball, that can have an enormous impact on the outcome of a swing.
His back shoulder being closer to the ground could be caused by his knee dropping down or it could be what is forcing him to drop his knee. Either way, they combine to throw off his balance and leave him less upright as the bat moves through the zone.
Examining this from the first base dugout side gives us a look at the difference in his swing plane:
Again, there are a number of things to note here, and none of them are good. He is clearly off balance in the 2015 swing again but there is quite a bit more going on that could be contributing to Napoli’s struggles. To start, we will take a look at his stance as he waits for the pitcher to begin his windup:
In the 2014 image, his front foot is squared up to the plate more than in the 2015 image. In 2015, his foot is so twisted inward that it causes his front leg to cross his back during his leg kick. Because Napoli’s leg is already at this angle, it causes him to lengthen his stride which can easily lower the swing plane:
You will notice in the 2014 image that his hands have already dropped closer to his waist so that he begins the swing on a more level plane and he finishes with a slight uppercut. In the 2015 image, his hands are much higher as he begins his swing. Because of this, he has to dip his back shoulder down and bend his knees more to bring the bat into the zone. Again, this causes many batters to swing under the ball instead making solid contact.
The knee cross that he has employed in 2015 causes him to load his hands while leaning further back toward the umpire. This makes it a little harder to drive off of his back leg. Like the front view swing we looked at above, Napoli is dipping his back knee more in the 2015 side of this clip:
As the bat moves through the point of contact, his back leg is bent at sharper angle which lowers his entire torso closer to the ground. This is followed by his front foot opening up far more than in the 2015 swing:
In addition to his front foot opening up earlier, his bat is coming around his shoulder later. Of course, not all swings are created equal. A number of factors could impact how quickly the barrel of the bat wraps around the shoulder during follow through – like how far the batter is extending their hands during the swing, where the bat and the ball make contact and how much loft is in the swing. However, when you consider that the 2014 pitch (on the left) was from Darren O’Day and was clocked at 87.2-mph, and that the 2015 pitch was from Garrett Richards and was traveling at just under 97-mph we can rule out Napoli slowing down his swing to time the pitch. The fact that we are looking at two pitches that were over the inner half of the plate and above the belt means that location would not require drastically different swings and the two swings sync up very well up to the point of contact, so we have to consider the possibility that Napoli’s bat speed is simply slower in 2015.
However, it is important to note, that the two clips needed to be adjusted slightly as one was from a slow motion replay and the other was not, so there remains the possibility that this is a syncing error. Looking at full speed video from the center field camera shows a similar difference in apparent bat speed, though, so I do not believe this to be the case:
One frame later we can get a better look at just how much more his front foot is opening up toward the third base side:
The final thing worth noting is that it looks like Napoli is not transferring his weight from his back foot to his front foot as effectively as he was in previous years. In two of the latter frames of the side view animation it is fairly easy to spot:
In the 2014 swing, his front foot stays planted as the bat comes around his shoulder during his follow through. The ball of his front foot comes up and moves around toward second base in the next few frames, but comparing it to the 2015 swing in these two frames gives us a great look at how much better his balance was last year.
He is upright and his back heel can move toward the umpire more freely as he drives off of his back leg. In the 2015 swing, his shoulders are further back, he has more weight on that back foot and ends up on the ball of his back foot and the heel of his front foot as his follow through begins.
When we put all of this together we have a hitter who is less balanced, whose swing is starting higher in the zone and who is compensating by lowering his body. If you are bunting, this is fine – but not if you are trying to get a base hit. That he is twisting his body in toward the plate more may be an indication he is trying to generate more torque, which could be another indication that he has lost some bat speed and is trying to overcompensate. It may also simply be a result of that front foot starting off more pigeon toed, which should be correctable, but the placement of his front foot may be a conscious change to speed up his ability to twist his torso more during his load.
If he has lost bat speed then we have seen the last of the fearsome hitter that helped carry the Red Sox to a championship in 2013. He will still hit home runs when he is able to square the ball up, but that will happen less often and every other aspect of his ability to put the ball into play is going to suffer with these changes to his swing. Swinging from lower to the ground means getting under the ball more often and less balance means less control of the bat as it moves through the zone.
Given his age and the downward trend in his numbers over the last few seasons, I would not hold my breath waiting for 2013 or even 2014 Napoli to step back into the box. When we combine this possibility with his difficulties adjusting to the expanding strike zone, the Red Sox may be very glad they only have him signed through the end of the season.