If you are not despondent about the Angels acquisition of Vernon Wells for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera, well, you are just not an Angels fan. Want more proof? A case can be made that the Angels just traded away their best catcher. Not just the best catcher on their roster, or their best catcher last year... the best catcher in franchise history!
A perusing of Baseball-Reference.com either tells the tale or brings up much debate
Based on games caught as an Angel, Napoli is fourth all time behind Bengie Molina, Buck Rodgers and the all-time leader for the team, Bob Boone. At 406 games behind the dish, Napoli is 20 games ahead of Lance Parrish all time.
The only other player who could come into the discussion of greatest ever is Brian Downing who was acquired as a catcher and who caught a few hundred games for the Angels. Downing is one of the inner circle all time greats for the club. He amassed 300+ games behind the plate with lousy defensive metrics but with great offensive numbers. Great enough that the club moved him to the outfield.
With Downing safely on the Anaheim Mount Rushmore with a bat in his hand and no catcher's gear on and Parrish too far behind and Buck Rodgers a shockingly Mathis-like hole in the 1960s Angels lineup, it really is Napoli against Bengie Molina and Bob Boone for the title.
Because catchers need time off and because often their number of games played includes times they came in to catch the ninth inning in some defensive replacement scheme, let's look at seasons played with the team - Bob Boone played in seven seasons as an Angel, Bengie Molina played in eight and Mike Napoli played in five. Boone was a full timer almost all the time he was here. Bengie was a part-timer for two of those seasons and Napoli had an extreme juggle with manager Mike Scioscia never accepting him as a "real" backstop - couple that with his team-first stab at taking over at 1B when Kendry Morales went down in the 2010 season and you have an extreme disadvantage in number of catching appearances for Napoli.
But that might be his only negative in this assessment...
Boone had 3,391 plate appearances as an Angel, Molina had 2,679 and Napoli 1,804. While Bob Boone was an historically great catcher, his OPS+ as an Angel was 71. Bengie Molina too was more than just decent with the glove, but his OPS+ under the halo was 84. The average replacement level player in this measurement is 100. Now of course, the defensive addition to their reputations must be added in somehow, and we will get to that, but Mike Napoli's OPS+ as an Angel was 118. Now, not all of those games were as a catcher, but unlike Brian Downing, there is no assuming that Napoli's short stint at 1B last season added any boost to his numbers considering his age.
This huge OPS+ gap must be taken into account into any positional argument. Napoli's plate appearance totals cannot be considered a small sample size. We must turn to Wins Above Replacement to look at what these three Angels greats compiled for the team both offensively and defensively to assess their careers.
In WAR (as in peace) we discover that like Brian Downing, Mike Napoli's defense behind the plate was not so great. He loses 2 Wins in his totals when defense is factored in to his career totals (all with the Angels, at least until opening day 2011). Napoli's 13 offensive Wins Above Replacement as an Angel becomes 11 WAR when defense is factored in. Just behind him in this category is Bob Boone, with 10.6 WAR. Bengie Molina is at 7.0. Considering that Molina is at the midpoint in plate appearances between Boone and Napoli, we can tip our cap to Bengie guiding the team to a world championship and narrow this competition down to Napoli and Boone.
Boone's defense is perhaps Hall of Fame caliber. He compiled 7.7 Wins Above Replacement as an Angel (and had many more before that as a Phillie). That is a number too great to ignore. But in all his time at catcher, it means he compiled just 2.9 offensive WAR. It is kind of hard to stay in the lineup for eight seasons with just that going for your bat. Brian Downing compiled a higher offensive WAR in just over a quarter of the games caught as an Angel as Boone did.
Working against Boone outside of his defense has to be calling for pitches in October 1982 and October 1986 that kept the Angels out of the playoffs. When the piling on over Jeff Mathis occurs (as it does almost daily at Halos Heaven) brings up his fastball call to Brian Fuentes against Alex Rodriguez in the 2009 ALCS, Boone retains twice the number of near World Series misses as Mathis - and Bob saved his forkball-finger-dangling for the deciding game.
But finally, if this endless argument comes down to just Napoli and Boone (although the campaigns for Downing's peak and Bengie's ring will never quite quell), we must consider (and a decade from now this consideration will perhaps include the door opening created for Hank Conger this weekend and will have rendered this entire essay moot) that the object of the game of baseball is to score runs...
Mike Napoli scored 30 fewer runs than Bob Boone. In 1,587 FEWER plate appearances.