Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Twins bring back Matt Capps to close in 2012

When it was announced that the Minnesota Twins had a deal in place to bring back closer Matt Capps, the move has been met with streams of vitriol for the obvious reasons.

The first and foremost reason was that Capps’s 2011 season was a big bag of flaming poo. Elevated back into the closer’s role after Joe Nathan returned prematurely from Tommy John surgery, Capps struggled to slam the down shut. He blew nine saves – second-highest in baseball last year – and his 63% save conversion rate was the lowest among closers with 20 opportunities or more. Adding to the problem was that Capps’s strikeout numbers, already a fairly low career rate for a closer, took a nosedive, declining from 20% to 12% as hitters stopped missing on his offerings altogether.

From June 28th to August 18th, his season bottomed out. In 24 outings in that span, Capps managed to convert just four saves while blowing three more. He allowed 12 runs in 18.2 innings and posted a gawdawful 3-to-7 strikeouts-to-walk ratio. Even though it was downplayed in-season and the coaching staff talked about a “mechanical problem”, I sourced it to an injury problem based on his arm action. It was later in the year that he admitted to having a “dead arm” and it was revealed more recently that his forearm was strained.

To make matter worse, the Twins, by the grace of the restructured collective bargaining agreement, were given a free draft pick for Matt Capps. Instead of being a Type A free agent who the Twins would have had no interest in extending arbitration to thereby unable to collect on any potential draft picks, the Lords of the Realm granted Capps amnesty from Type A status – giving the Twins a supplemental round pick (between the first and second rounds) – if another team signed him.

For teams interested in keeping their internal pipeline of prospects flowing, this was an ideal situation. It is this type of decision-making that keeps the Tampa Bay Rays in continual contention while keeping their overall budget low. So, the Twins would land another prospect and could redirect that money they would have spent retaining Capps on another similar or better relief arm.

Perhaps it was because they believe that they wanted to curb their investment in this year’s draft (they do have the number two pick as well as up to three more supplemental picks if Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel sign elsewhere). Perhaps it was because they looked at this year’s draft class and determined – like Keith Law noted – it will be weaker than the previous drafts.  Or perhaps they just loved the idea of the guy who “takes the ball everyday” despite being hurt in 2011 and genuinely believe he is poised for a rebound year. Whatever the reason, the Twins decided to turn down the free draft pick that fell into their laps.

The idea of declining free money is hard to fathom for this franchise, and that is the hardest pill to swallow when it comes to analyzing this deal, but all else being equal, I don’t hate it.

While holding the belief that the closer’s role is often overvalued and overpaid on the free market, I had encouraged the Twins to holster their search for one, citing the methods of the aforementioned Rays who have made fiscally prudent decisions by signing an arm like Kyle Farnsworth – a guy who was written off as unable to handle high pressure situations by Baseball Prospectus – only to thrive as a closer for Tampa.  There are plenty of arms on the market that fit the same profile as Farnsworth and likely would have been obtained at a similar pay grade (one-year, $2.6M). In many respects, Matt Capps also fits in that group. Sure, he does have nearly the impressive strikeout pedigree even when healthy as a Farnsworth but he throws strikes, limits base-runners and could be signed at a reduced rate coming off the bad season. The $4.75M is twice as much as what the Rays paid Farnsworth but it isn’t an outrageous amount to hand to Capps (unlike the $7M they burnt on his last year) and, according to Fangraphs.com’s valuation system, he’s been able to come very close or match that value in three of his last five seasons.  

The Twins believe that Capps will have a bounce-back year and that is a completely reasonable expectation.

One of the reasons his strikeout rate plummeted so greatly was undoubtedly due to his forearm pain. In 2010 his biggest strikeout pitch was his slider as 20 percent of plate appearances were strikeouts on that pitch. Additionally, hitters swung chased after 39 percent of sliders thrown out of the strike zone. This past season, just 7 percent of plate appearances ended on a strikeout from his slider and opponents chased just 29 percent percent of all out-of-zone sliders. Also worth noting is that his slider’s groundball rate dropped from 44 percent in ’10 to 34 percent in ’11.

Matt Capps’s Slider (2010-2011)

MLB avg

According to Pitch F/X data, Capps’s 2011 slider did not demonstrate nearly the same amount of run and drop it did 2010. Also, velocity-wise he was throwing it nearly two miles an hour harder this past year as well:

What you see here is that whereas a majority of Capps’s sliders had a spin angle between 60 and 120 degrees in 2010, this last year a more substantial portion of his slide pieces fell between 120-to -180 degrees – a range closer to that of a fastball. So in 2011 his main secondary offering now looked more like his fastball and hitters were able to either hold up their swing or punish the pitch.

Given his forearm injury, it is easy to see why he struggled with his slider. The mechanics of the slider require a fairly strong wrist/forearm combination to execute and with a weak link in the chain, the results often are bad. So, with a healthy forearm, I would anticipate a revival of sorts for this pitch and with it, an increase in his strikeout count. Still, I can’t say with the utmost confidence that Capps will be 100% throughout the 2012 season. As I outlined last year, his arm action – one in which he cocks his elbow above shoulder level – has been identified by biomechanics as an attribute that leads to arm injuries and one that could have incited the forearm pain. Because of this delivery, it seems there would always be the possibility of another flare up.   

Truthfully, I don’t think this move is as egregious as the crowd would like people to believe. Yes, the draft pick decision was a wasteful maneuver but given both the surplus of picks in the first and supplemental round as well as the fact that the organization likely did not count on even having the Capps pick until after the CBA was renewed, declining one is not the end of the world nor the mark of a bad front office. In terms of the contract, the one-year deal for $4.75M isn’t completely out of line. And, as I mentioned before, Capps has managed to produce at that value level in the past and that is a substantial savings for the cost of a free market “experienced closer”.