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Twins overvalued the save stat and overpaid for Matt Capps

Jul 30, 2010, 8:35 AM EDT

Matt Capps was available for nothing this offseason.

Non-tendered by the Pirates in December following a career-worst season that saw him post a 5.80 ERA and .324 opponents’ batting
average while serving up 10 homers in 54.1 innings, Capps became a free
agent and signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Nationals in
large part because they were one of the only teams willing to promise
him an opportunity to remain a closer.

And last night the Twins decided to overpay for that closing experience, acquiring Capps from the Nationals for Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa.
To be clear, Capps is a good, solid late-inning reliever. He bounced
back nicely in Washington with a 2.74 ERA and 38-to-9 strikeout-to-walk
ratio in 46 innings and has a 3.50 ERA in 317 career innings. However,
if not for his racking up 93 saves for bad teams I’m convinced the Twins
never would have even considered this move.

Much like the Twins turning to Jon Rauch with Joe Nathan
sidelined, Capps’ reputation as an “experienced closer” comes largely
from teams simply giving him a shot to accumulate saves. Rauch has done a
perfectly fine job filling in for Nathan, converting 21-of-25 saves
with a 3.05 ERA and 27-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38.1 innings, and
if given a longer opportunity may have turned himself into an
“established closer” just like Capps did. Seriously.

Take a look at their respective career numbers as relievers:

           IP     ERA     FIP    SO/9    BB/9     AVG     OBP     SLG     OPS
Capps 317 3.50 3.80 7.0 1.7 .263 .302 .415 .717
Rauch 402 3.54 3.90 7.5 2.7 .242 .297 .390 .687

Capps has had better control, Rauch has been tougher to hit, and
their overall effectiveness is nearly identical across the board. If
pressed I’d pick Capps over Rauch because he’s younger and has fared
better in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching
(xFIP), but by far the biggest difference between them is that one has
accumulated saves for four seasons while the other has accumulated saves
for one season.

No one would ever suggest that trading Ramos for a reliever who’s
slightly better than Rauch is a sound idea, yet by focusing on the save
statistic the Twins have done just that and many fans will instinctively
be on board with the move for an “established closer.” Now, don’t get
me wrong: Capps is a quality reliever and represents a clear upgrade to
the bullpen. What he’s not is an elite reliever or enough of an
upgrade to part with Ramos.

Capps is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player next
season as well, which means the Twins essentially traded Ramos and Testa
for 1.5 seasons of him. Unfortunately part of his inflated perceived
value includes his likely price-tag in arbitration, which is sure to
rise from this year’s $3.5 million salary to over $5 million (and
perhaps well over $5 million) thanks to those same shiny-looking save
totals.

Capps makes the Twins better for the final two months of this season
and all of next year, but the improvement isn’t nearly as large as the
“All-Star closer” label would have you believe and the cost involved is
significant in terms of both players and money. Next season the Twins
will pay a premium for a quality setup man they perceive as something
more because of a reliance on a flawed statistic and they gave up a good
catching prospect for the right do that.

In fairness, Ramos’ value is inflated as well. His historic debut
caused the Twins fans who don’t know any better to assume that he was
destined for stardom and his subsequent struggles at Triple-A have
exposed him as a good but not great prospect. However, he still projects
as a good defender behind the plate and a 22-year-old being overmatched
in his first experience at Triple-A is far from disastrous.

I’m not convinced that Ramos will become a star, but the possibility
certainly exists and at the very least he looks capable of developing
into a starting-caliber catcher for many years. Joe Mauer’s
presence meant Ramos had little shot to be that starting-caliber catcher
in Minnesota, but that doesn’t mean the Twins needed to deal him
immediately or when his value was at an all-time low or for an
underwhelming return like Capps.

I have no problem with trading Ramos or trading for bullpen help, and
in the Twins’ minds they just traded him for an “All-Star closer.” In
reality they traded Ramos for a setup-caliber reliever who accumulated
saves on bad teams and is thus overrated and soon overpaid. Among the 93
pitchers who’ve logged 150-plus relief innings in the past three
calendar years, Capps ranks 38th in xFIP, 49th in FIP, 50th in ERA, 61st
in strikeout rate, and 85th in opponents’ average.

You’d think the Twins would have learned something about the
created-not-born nature of the closer role and often spurious value of
saves from Rauch’s relatively successful stint filling in for Nathan,
but instead they just paid a premium for a guy whose perceived value and
ability are much higher than his actual value and ability solely
because of his role and save total. Capps is a good reliever, but the
Twins paid for a great reliever and did so for all the wrong reasons.

  1. john j pileggi - Jul 30, 2010 at 8:56 AM

    Sometimes you overpay if you believe you can win the series in this year. Twins feel like they have as good a shot as anyone and are willing to go for it.

  2. Cheap Seat Chronicles - Jul 30, 2010 at 9:02 AM

    I gotta ask, John….do you really think Capps is the difference-maker for the Twins winning a World Series?
    A month ago, Ramos was supposed to be the key piece that landed us Lee, Oswalt or Haren…today he’s not good enough to land Matt Capps straight up?!
    Scary stuff and unless the Twinkies do roll to the World Series and Matty Capps saves 20+ games the rest of the way and saves 11 of ‘em in the playoffs, I’m not convinced this was a wise move.

  3. Chris Fiorentino - Jul 30, 2010 at 9:03 AM

    I hate when stat geeks check out their Excel Spreadsheets and try to tell everyone how stupid a trade is. They like Capps. They have no need for Ramos. They made a “now” deal that helps them this year. Would Ramos help them this year? No. For this year, Capps + Rauch > Ramos + Rauch. Period. You should plug that into your spreadsheet and see what the numbers give you. When I see someone run out the xFIP stat, it makes me want to throw up my Cheerios.

  4. alterity - Jul 30, 2010 at 9:25 AM

    god, you’re a jerk. note that the guys here at HBT get paid to do ANALYSIS. nothing they do has much, if any, impact on WHAT HAS ALREADY HAPPENED. so they discuss it and GIVE THEIR OPINION. they often base their OPINIONS on WHAT HAS ALREADY HAPPENED (which they know from, gasp, STATISTICS).
    fun fact: people in the early 20th century didn’t like the new-fangled RBI stat (for much the same reason SABR types don’t like it today).

  5. okobojicat - Jul 30, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    Chris,
    that’s and absolutely jackass way to think about. Using Ramos to land a starting pitcher would’ve helped them more. Hanging onto Ramos until next year (or this offseason) when he starts tearing up AAA (he’s still young this year for a AAA catcher) and then deal him for a 3B or perhaps a starting pitcher. Throw in Duensing or Perkins with a Ramos deal to get a starting pitcher/3B or long term solution at 2B would’ve been great. This deal is pointless because Capps is at best, a marginal upgrade within the bullpen. The bullpen hasn’t been the issue this year. Its been the worthlessness of Baker/Slowey/Blackburn for 2 months.

  6. Jonny5 - Jul 30, 2010 at 9:53 AM

    In a team situation you just don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. They may have a very good reason to “overpay” in a trade. They may NEED to move someone for something as simple as team dynamics, attitude issues, conflict with coaches etc.. So while Chris may seem to be coming down on the author for his stats, which I wouldn’t. I’d like to come down on him for judging a team as making a mistake for moving someone because of stats only. That’s the problem with judging these moves like a statgeek would.

  7. The Dangerous Mabry - Jul 30, 2010 at 10:29 AM

    The thing about that attitude, Jonny, is that you’re saying you need to assume that every trade may have been a good trade, because you can’t “know everything that went on behind closed doors”. Victor Zambrano for Scott Kazmir? Great trade for the Mets, for some unknown reason. Jeff Bagwell for Larry Anderson? Solid move by the Boston front office, because of something we’ll never know.
    Sometimes, it’s worth looking at the deal based on what we DO know, and see what we can make of it, instead of saying that no trade can be evaluated because there might be something we don’t know. I think that’s what this article is doing.

  8. Evan2442 - Jul 30, 2010 at 10:32 AM

    As someone who’s watched Capps all year, I was quite surprised when I saw this move. Besides his last few saves, Capps generally gets himself into trouble by giving up a walk or a hit just about every time he comes in to close. On the other hand, his losses/blown saves were more on the part of bad defense (Desmond errors etc) than just bad pitching. But overall, Rauch is just as good, if not better. And since the Nationals have Storen, the Nationals came out on top trading a guy while he was at a peak because overall, he isn’t that good. Don’t be surprised when Capps blows one or two down the stretch.

  9. BC - Jul 30, 2010 at 10:37 AM

    Having an extra quality arm in the bullpen is never a bad thing. If you consider Capps and Rauch to be roughly equal, having two is better than having one.
    BTW… if Capps was available, where the heck were the Red Sox and Phillies on this?

  10. Jonny5 - Jul 30, 2010 at 11:08 AM

    I’m not saying all trades are good because of what goes on behind closed doors at all. Some trades seem great until someone goes nuts, or their arm falls off, or they get a nagging injury, whatever. I’m just saying there is always the possibility that when a team does trade and it appears they “overpaid” it still could be the best thing to do for the team as a whole. While it looks like a mistake on the surface it may be the smartest move. that’s all. I’m not against him reporting what he see’s in numbers. I will admit I don’t like how he rips into the Twins the way he does when all he has is one small part of the entire story between a team and a player.

  11. snowbum - Jul 30, 2010 at 1:26 PM

    Why is everyone thinking this is because they think the Twins don’t believe in Rauch? I think it wasn’t that they needed a closer, it’s that they needed a set-up man that wouldn’t blow the game. Rauch is a great setup man, so if you move him there, it’s not because he wasn’t a good closer, it’s because they needed him elsewhere.

  12. JBerardi - Jul 30, 2010 at 3:10 PM

    Well, they would have needed to outbid the Twins’ ridiculous offer… Boston isn’t about to ship Casey Kelly out for bullpen help.

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