FORT MYERS, Fla. — Mike Napoli might have added a few more years to his career by going from catcher to full-time first baseman.
Napoli enjoyed a solid full first season at first base with the Boston Red Sox in 2013, hitting .259 with 23 homers, 92 RBIs and a .360 on-base percentage. He also played very good defense after making a position change that should alleviate some of the wear and tear Napoli’s body went through during his first seven major league seasons.
“Catching is such a grind,” Napoli told MLB.com. “People don’t really understand what it’s like to be back there and trying to hit when you’re tired and you have no legs.”
Napoli had plenty of offensive success while serving as a full-time catcher, but the physical grind only becomes more difficult to push through as a player ages. The 32-year-old also has faced questions about a degenerative hip condition — known as avascular necrosis — he was diagnosed with before the 2013 season, although those concerns have been mitigated by Napoli’s hips not showing any signs of deterioration since the initial diagnosis.
“Physically, (catching) takes it out of you,” Napoli said. “Your legs, your knees, just your whole body. Foul tips all the time. I’m hoping (switching to first base) puts a couple extra years on there for me.”
Napoli arrived at Red Sox spring training this year in great shape, and it’s led to results on the diamond. Napoli enters Friday’s contest against the Toronto Blue Jays hitting .300 (6-for-20) with two homers and three RBIs in eight spring games, and he nearly went deep in Thursday’s victory over the Minnesota Twins at Hammond Stadium.
Red Sox manager John Farrell said before Thursday’s game that Napoli is in a very good place during his second camp with the organization. While there were questions last spring about Napoli’s transition to first base and if his hip condition would worsen, this spring has been more about getting down to on-field business, and the slugger looks primed for a big year.
“That’s freed him up mentally,” Farrell said of not facing so many questions this spring. “It’s also freed him up physically, because he’s been able to have an offseason that was normal. His workouts have been regular.
“I see Nap now with more freedom in his swing to where he’s pulling the ball a bit more regularly. That’s not to say he’s changing his style. He’s just more freed up to address pitches on the inside part of the plate more regularly. Hopefully, it translates to bigger numbers.”
Napoli might miss some aspects of catching, like the strategy of calling a game, but it’s a trade-off both he and the Red Sox will make for sustained offensive production.