Mike Napoli Making Strong Case To Be Considered Red Sox’s Early MVP

Mike NapoliBoston Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli is making a habit of making an impact.

Napoli jump-started the Red Sox’s offense Sunday with an RBI double in the first inning off Texas Rangers starter Robbie Ross Jr. The two-bagger set the tempo for the Red Sox’s 5-2 win at Globe Life Park in Arlington, representing another big knock for Napoli, who quite possibly has been Boston’s most valuable player so far this season.

“The guys really helped me with those early runs,” said Red Sox starter John Lackey, who lasted seven innings Sunday. “It’s nice to go out there when you already got a 3-0 lead. It kind of lets you relax a little bit and lets you pound the strike zone.”

Ever since Manny Ramirez was traded away in the summer of 2008, the expression “right-handed protection for David Ortiz” has been a staple in debates pertaining to the Red Sox’s starting lineup — in many ways, it’s been the baseball equivalent of “puck-moving defenseman.” Napoli has provided such protection over the last season-plus, but perhaps never to the extent that he has early on this season.

For a snapshot of Napoli’s impact, one mustn’t look any further than the slugger’s first-inning double on Sunday. Rangers manager Ron Washington decided to walk Ortiz with first base open, one out and Dustin Pedroia on third base. The move was a clear indication of Washington’s respect for Ortiz, but it wasn’t the smartest decision, as Napoli immediately made the Rangers pay.

It wasn’t the first time Napoli has capitalized under such circumstances, either. Since signing with the Sox before the 2013 season, Napoli is 8-for-17 with two home runs, two doubles, five walks and 18 RBIs immediately following an intentional walk to Ortiz.

Napoli leads the Red Sox this season in RBIs (21), on-base percentage (.408) and OPS (.868). His five home runs trail only Ortiz’s seven, and he’s reached base in 33 of 34 games with a plate appearance. Napoli’s 31-game on-base streak is the longest single-season on-base streak by a Red Sox player since Dustin Pedroia reached in 37 straight games from June 15 to July 25, 2011.

According to ESPN.com, Napoli leads the Red Sox with a 1.2 offensive WAR. If that doesn’t fall under the “right-handed protection for David Ortiz” umbrella, then it’s time to reassess what exactly that whole concept means.

But Napoli’s value goes beyond his offensive ability, which already was apparent during his days in Texas. He has transitioned seamlessly to playing first base full-time since arriving in Boston, and his glove work has been even more impressive this season than it was last season, when Napoli inexplicably wasn’t a Gold Glove finalist.

We’re less than 40 games into the 2014 season, and it’s likely Napoli’s year will feature several peaks and valleys before all is said and done. Such is the life of a streaky hitter. But as the Red Sox start to figure things out and get on a winning track, it’s impossible to overlook the impact Napoli has had  both offensively and defensively so far this season.