Explaining the Chris Capuano Bargain

Everybody’s interested in free-agent bargains. Regular free-agent prices always seem increasingly insane, so everybody’s interested in free-agent bargains. People ask about remaining bargains in seemingly every FanGraphs chat I either run or read, and my automatic answer has long been Chris Capuano. I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s Capuano, and then it’s on to the next question. I don’t remember when it started this way. I don’t remember what my initial explanation was. It seems about time to actually write a post about this, and as it happens, this post can even be timely.

Buster Olney wrote this morning about how free-agent prices are coming down with spring training nearly upon us. Teams have even exploited this as a strategy, figuring that, in time, players will get more desperate than the teams will. Olney also composed a few tweets, two of which are relevant to this particular Capuano-centric discussion. Now I’ll embed them, as you do.




Now, it doesn’t matter so much what Arroyo wants. Players always want a lot. Ervin Santana, at one point, wanted $100 million. Nelson Cruz, at one point, wanted $75 million. Players will sign for the best they can get, since it’s better than not signing, and no one has actually yet given in to Arroyo’s demands. But it is possible to imagine his getting three years. It’s definitely possible to see him getting two, maybe with an option, and Capuano’s now just looking for a home for six or seven months. Capuano, as it happens, is younger by a year and a half.

As a starting point, in October the Dodgers declined Capuano’s $8 million option, paying a $1 million buyout. In other words, the Dodgers didn’t value a year of Chris Capuano at $7 million or more. That’s just the Dodgers, and that’s not the whole market, but obviously, Capuano’s phone hasn’t been ringing off the hook to which phones haven’t been attached for 20 years. $7 million is, basically, the price of a win over replacement. At least, that’s the price for free agents.

I’m going to compare Capuano and Arroyo, not because the choice is actually one or the other, but just because it seems like it could be instructive. I’ll use our usual three-year windows, and I’ll remove Capuano’s limited relief appearances. The last three years, Capuano has started 84 games, and Arroyo has started 96. Arroyo’s posted the superior ERA, and RA9. Capuano’s posted the superior FIP and xFIP. As a result, Arroyo has been more than three wins more valuable, by RA9-WAR. However, Capuano has been three wins more valuable by WAR, in more than 100 fewer innings. Two different stats paint completely different pictures.

And we can’t trust either one of them 100%. Compromise, and the pitchers are more or less even. Capuano’s got a huge edge in strikeouts. Arroyo’s got an edge in hit prevention. Arroyo’s pitched in a smaller park; Capuano’s pitched to worse catchers. This being FanGraphs, I prefer to more heavily weight the peripherals. I’m also willing to grant that Arroyo might be one of those guys able to beat his FIP, but the FIP gap between Arroyo and Capuano has been not small.

What Arroyo really has going for him is durability. He’s reached or exceeded 200 innings in eight of the last nine seasons. In the one exception, he threw 199. He’s simply not a guy who misses starts, and I’m sure that’s one of his primary selling points. But then, with pitchers, durability is only so predictive. Capuano doesn’t have the durable label, because he’s actually undergone Tommy John surgery twice. He was injured three times just last season. But all the injuries were minor, and between 2011-2012, Capuano started 64 times. He’s been durable recently, and it’s not like his stuff has declined. Last year he had the highest average velocity of his career.

This past season, Capuano posted an average adjusted FIP, and an average adjusted xFIP, just like Scott Feldman. The last three years, he’s posted a slightly below-average adjusted FIP, but an average adjusted xFIP. He has a better three-year FIP/xFIP profile than Ervin Santana. His three-year strikeout rate is exactly the same as R.A. Dickey‘s.

Most certainly, there are things about Capuano not to like. His elbow has been cut open twice, and he’s 35 years old. He has allowed more runs than you’d expect from his other statistics, and maybe that means something. He’s a lefty who’s been far better against lefties, meaning in some sense he’s been a reliever in a stretched-out role. The last three years against Capuano, lefties have hit 57% grounders, while righties have hit 39% grounders. That difference of 18% is the sixth-biggest in baseball over that span, and righties have torched Capuano for more dingers. He’s got a big platoon split, from the wrong side.

There’s also the matter of Capuano’s strikeouts never matching Capuano’s swings and misses. There’s a very strong correlation between strikeout rate and contact rate, allowing one to generate an expected strikeout rate. Capuano routinely posts better-than-average contact rates, but his strikeout rates have been somewhat unremarkable. Historically, pitchers who throw a lot of curves have been able to beat their expected strikeout rates, and pitchers who throw a lot of changeups have undershot their expected strikeout rates. Capuano leans heavily on his changeup, being a lefty who faces a lot of righties.

When you put everything together, Capuano definitely isn’t great, and he definitely isn’t the most durable starting pitcher in the world. He’s probably a little bit below the league average, in terms of true talent at this point in his career. But then you need to consider that not all five of a team’s starters are likely to be average or better than that. There’s value in what Capuano can do, and he’s worth some millions for a year, a year during which he could be worth one or two wins. On a WAR/200-innings basis, Steamer projects Capuano at 1.8. It projects Tim Hudson at 1.7. Bronson Arroyo at 1.6. Phil Hughes at 1.9. John Danks at 1.8. There’s a strong argument to be made that Capuano could be worth eight figures, and it looks like he’s going to have to settle for less than that. Which means he could be a free agent with surplus value.

Every starting rotation needs higher-quality pitchers, and every starting rotation needs guys who don’t suck. Capuano doesn’t suck, and he could help out toward the back end, for a very reasonable cost. Of course one shouldn’t get excited over the prospect of signing Chris Capuano for a year. But not every good move has to be exciting, and besides, Bronson Arroyo’s unlikely to flip any lids.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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