Matt Capps Non-Tendered

After being connected to trade rumors involving J.J. Hardy earlier this winter, the Pirates have non tendered closer Matt Capps. Given that Pittsburgh assumes that other teams would value Capps, this strikes me as an interesting move. 2009 was rough for Capps, as his ERA rose to a staggering 5.80 after two years of 2.28 and 3.02. He also blew 5 saves in 32 chances. It’s clear that Capps has closer talent. What made him so ineffective in 2009?

The spike in ERA can be easily attributed a rise in home run rate. Capps managed to hold hitters to HR/9 rates of 0.57 and 0.84 in 2007 and 2008, despite fly ball rates in the 45%-50% range. The only way to survive as a flyballing relief pitcher is to post low HR/FB rates, and Capps had certainly succeeded with that prior to 2008. In 2009, however, Capps’s HR/FB ballooned to 13.5%, and even though Capps allowed fewer fly balls, that still resulted in a nearly twice as high HR/9. The end result is a 1.62 rise in FIP.

Capps did see a rise in walk rate, but at 2.82 BB/9, it’s nothing to be worried about. Since it was accompanied by a rise in K rate as well, it is even less concerning. Then, before any team adds Capps, the item of investigation is what caused the home run rate to increase.

Velocity was not an issue for Capps, as his fastball, slider, and changeup all had the fastest velocities of his career. In fact, it is the last pitch which jumps out when examining the data. His 87.1 average changeup is 2.5 MPH faster than that pitch ever has clocked in over his career.

What makes the changeup effective for most pitchers is the difference in speeds between it and the fastball. At 6.5 MPH in 2009, this difference was, unsurprisingly, the lowest of his career. It had a very noticeable effect on the pitch’s effectiveness, as measured by our pitch type values. From 2006-2008, the pitch had ranged in effectiveness from -3.21 to +3.12 runs per 100 pitches. In 2009, it plummeted to -5.35 runs per 100. It appears that Capps’s changeup lost much of its effectiveness after it no longer retained the 8.5 MPH difference that led to the +3.12 run value per 100 pitches in 2009.

There was more to Capps’s ineffectiveness in 2009 than a poor changeup. His .370 BABIP is unsustainable and will regress, and it’s likely that the same applies to his 13.5% HR/FB. Much of regaining his success, however, will lie on returning the changeup to an effective pitch.

Capps pitched far too well in 2007 and 2008 to not be picked up by a team in 2010. Whether or not he can regain his closer effectiveness again will remain to be seen.

Do you think Capps can rebound? Enter your projection for Matt Capps’s 2010 here.




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24 Responses to “Matt Capps Non-Tendered”

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  1. JR says:

    “The only way to survive as a flyballing relief pitcher is to post low HR/FB rates”

    Is that controllable?

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    • The A Team says:

      It can be controlled some at the extremes (think Mariano Rivera), but Capps falls within the normal range.

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    • philosofool says:

      Yeah, some pitchers definitely have lower or higher than average HR/FB rates, even when you normalize for park factors. However, (1) the apparent variance in ability isn’t huge (maybe +/-2% from average) and (2) it takes a very large sample to have much confidence that this is a skill. You need more than a few seasons of relief pitching to know that the effect is will continue.

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  2. sean says:

    This is also a comment on the arbitration system, I think. Can it be that more teams are learning that saves are overvalued in the current system? I’m sure the Pirates haven’t thought that Capps is suddenly a 5+ ERA pitcher, but they may think that he would be paid more in arbitration than he’s worth as a non-dominant relief pitcher.

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    • Sky Kalkman says:

      Definitely something here. Arbitration rewards very old-school/traditional performance stats. Teams can take advantage for good-fielding, low-average guys, but for high-saves, high-RBI type guys, they either have to pay the too-large amount or cut people. It would be fairer all-around if arbitration awards joined the 21st century. Who controls that? And do those people really have the motivation to make it happen?

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      • philosofool says:

        The players would seem to have a motivation to see the system change, but I think clubs don’t. The arbitration system favors clubs here, because they can non-tender the player at no cost and then deal with him as a free agent if they feel that arbitration would pay more than his market value. In the reverse case, the club can offer arbitration for a net benefit and the player gets screwed.

        Overall, the eventual situation could become very weird. If teams really start valuing players at their WAR values, then free agents will essentially get fair contract while arbitration players won’t, unless the arbitration system would over pay them. (See why clubs have no reason to change this system.)

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      • Sky Kalkman says:

        I don’t mean the system of cost-controlled years should be changed, just the distribution of arbitration dollars from RBI/saves to fielding/walks. If Capps’ arb awards was in line with his actual value, then Pirates would be more likely to keep him. And if slick-fielding arb-eligible shortstops were paid according to their real value in arbitration, that would be more fair to him.

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  3. Steve says:

    I am going to assume that Pittsburgh offered Capps in trade to the other 29 teams during the winter meetings before coming to this decision. Capps was set to earn a pretty nice salary this year in arbitration, so I’m not sure this decision was really avoidable for them.

    It’s a shame that they couldn’t get anything for him, but I’d imagine that teams correctly figured him for a Non-Tender candidate and could just wait out the Pirates.

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    • jon says:

      Huntington blamed leaked reports that the Pirates were considering non-tendering Capps for ruining his trade value. According to him, once teams thought Capps might be non-tendered, nobody was willing to trade for him.

      That darn, pesky media: reporting what Huntington’s employees told them. How scandalous…

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  4. Adam Reynolds says:

    Neal Huntington is putting all his chips on Fail by releasing him over a million or a million and a half dollar difference. If the Bucs have a terrible pen and Capps returns to form, it does not reflect well on the GM.

    I’d bet against him not only because of losing the change-up, but also because he’s had a ton of injury and conditioning issues the past few years.

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    • Steve says:

      The other way of looking at that is: why should a bad team spend $4M on a closer?

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      • B says:

        True, but it would be smarter to gamble on him rebounding. Then trade him mid-way through the season for some prospects if you don’t want to pay him 4 million.

        By non-tendering him you’re just giving him away for free. It’s just not a smart move.

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  5. Sky Kalkman says:

    Capps’ BB struggles were early in the season. From June on, his K/BB ratio was over 4. The HRs were a season long thing, though. I’m okay explaining away some of it due to luck, but then there’s this: Capps’ GB% was 31% each of the past two years, with good HR/FB rates. But in 2006, his GB% was 41%, same as 2009, and his HR/FB was again well above average for a reliever.

    So, what else is similar between 2006 and 2009 for Capps?

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    • philosofool says:

      r-squared for BB% doesn’t reach .5 until a pitcher has accumulated 550 TBF. I’ve always been very surprised by this result. If I understand this result correctly, we should actually be paying far less attention to BB/PA as a predictive metric than we do, especially for relief pitchers and young starters.

      Here’s the persentation of the original research (Pizza Cutter’s):
      http://statspeak.net/2008/01/06/on-the-reliability-of-pitching-stats.html

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      • Scottwood says:

        That is great stuff. Some pitchers do control their HR/FB ratio better than others, though. How long of a baseline do we need to establish that? For starters, is it 6 to 7 years? That is the number I’ve always heard.

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  6. The A Team says:

    The scouting reports on Capps that I have seen suggest that his stuff has lost movement. I have not taken a look at his pitch f/x, but it might be a worthwhile exercise for those among you that feel he has potential value. For me, Capps fits in the “extremely fungible reliever role” (which can and often do get saves at some point, see Franklin, Ryan).

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  7. Horn828 says:

    the question is can Capps rebound….sure he can, he is only 26 and does have some talent.

    that being said, i am not sold on Capps in a closer role any time soon. middle relief or a situational set up role may be more to his fitting moving forward for the next couple years or so.

    just because you were the closer for the 2009 pirates, that does not qualify you for a closer role with the (fill in the blank here!)…..

    Capps 09 salary was close to 2.5M. He was asking for about 3.4M for 2010. Pirates were going to offer a raise to around the 2.8-3.0M range.

    it is hard to understand why the pirates and Capps could not come to a deal before the deadline, especially if the difference is only 300K-500K. are the pirates THAT CASH STAPPED?

    perhaps the Pirates and Kerrigan wanted to change Capps’ role and that was the deciding factor to why this fell out the way it did.

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  8. Steve says:

    “just because you were the closer for the 2009 pirates, that does not qualify you for a closer role with the (fill in the blank here!)…..”

    a major league team?

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  9. neuter_your_dogma says:

    Considering how few hitters a typical closer faces in a year, could it be that the rise in HR/FB was caused by luck of the draw – meaning that in 09 he simply pitched to hitters that were more inclined to take him yard?

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  10. There is more information in the name link, but…

    In his second full season as a closer, Matt Capps followed up a 3.02 ERA/3.28 FIP 2008 season with a Brad Lidge-like 4.98 FIP (5.68 ERA). What happened? Will he regress further next season or bounce back? Should the Pirates just cut ties with the downtrodden flamethrower? Pirates GM Neil Huntington strongly hinted that Capps will probably come back next season. Is this the right move for the Pirates?

    Matt Capps is traditionally a one pitch (fastball) pitcher. In 2007 and 2008, Capps burned his 92+ heat 78+% of the time and his fastball was at least a full win above average in quality. Capps had immaculate control of zone as well, posting a 4.0 K/BB in 2007 and a ridiculous 7.80 K/BB last season, despite maintaining a league average career K/9 rate of 6.88.

    As such a fastball oriented pitcher, it is no surprise that Matt Capps is also a FB pitcher (0.82 GB/FB career). Considering his command of his fastball, however (a filthy 0.84 BB/9 in 2008!), it should come at no surprise that Capps rarely missed his spots therefore was not really hurt by the long ball in the past (0.57 and 0.84 HR/9 rates in 2007 and 2008, respectively).

    That was that, though. This is now.

    2009 was a different story for the Pirates’ closer. Capps cut down his fastball usage from 78.6% last year to 69.0% this year (a 12.2% relative change in usage) and starting mixing in his very average (sub average in the past two seasons) slider more and more (from 14.8% last season to 24.3% this season). The results were not very pretty. Capps’ new pitch selection resulted in some dramatic changes in command and control. His BB/9 increased by almost two full runs, to 2.75, this year and although Capps has a career high K/9 rate of 7.57 this season, he is simultaneously posting the worst K/BB of his career at 2.74 (4.20 career K/BB). This loss of command has resulted in a huge spike in long balls (1.72 HR), despite an improved and neutral GB/FB rate this season (0.99).

    To add fuel to the fire, as Matt Capps’ fastball quality is on a three year decline. Where it was worth almost two wins above average in 2007 and a win above average last year, Capp’s fastball is slightly below average this season. Furthermore, as Capps’ slider has increased in usage, it has also regressed from -0.27 runs below average per 100 pitches last season to -1.04 runs below average per 100 pitches this year.

    So what does this mean for Matt Capps? Well, for one thing, it means that if Capps wants to revert to his pre-2009 level of production, he desperately needs to go back to the basics — the things that made him successful as a reliever in the first place.

    Capps has upped the mustard on his cheese a full mile per house, from a career average 92.7 MPH to a career high 93.7 average speed per pitch on the gun this year. While some extra speed is nice, it has resulted in slightly over one less inch of horizontal movement and half an inch of vertical movement. Or, in other words, Capps is throwing his fastball flatter, which is never good if you want to keep the ball in the yard. Capps should work on throttling back on the gas just a bit and putting back that little extra late life on his fastball.

    Secondly, Capps needs to just plain cut down on the slider usage. Clearly, a second and even third pitch (Capps does have a change up that he mixes in around 6% of the time) give a reliver options when he needs it, but there is no reason for Capps to be increasingly reliant on poor secondary stuff when he needs to get batters out. An extra slider here and there to keep hitters off balance is fine; just don’t go all slider happy on the batter — remember, you are not Michael Wuertz.

    Finally, Capps just needs some luck to return to his side. This season, Capps has become incredibly hittable and is posting a ridiculously high .363 BABIP. Coupled with the spike in walks and home runs, you can see why Capps is having such a poor season in 2009. The HR/FB rate is a bit inflated at 13.9% (league average is 11% and pitchers tend to, on average, regress to this number) and the HR/9 should therefore decline a bit next season, even if Capps does not regain the command that let him continuously post HR/FB rates below 7% in 2007 and 2008.

    Capps, who made over $2 million this season, is rounding out the end of a $3 million two year deal he signed last season. With a couple more years of arbitration ahead and a subpar year this season, Capps should remain relatively cheap for the near future — at least for 2010. Considering how overpaid relievers tend to be, I do not see the Pirates ditching Matt Capps in the offseason to avoid a potential arbitration raise because 1) the Pirates have no quality in house relief options to fill the void that Capps would leave and 2) the Pirates do not really have an abundance of resources to splurge on the open market — even if their opening day payroll is projected to be $20 million lower next year than this year and even if the FA market continues to stay depressed. Even if Capps does not regain his 2007-2008 form, he is still a quality reliever who throws strikes. Teams like the Cubs who have plenty of power arms in the pen with poor walk rates would love to have a guy like Capps. Thus, at worst, Capps could surely provide a valuable and relatively affordable trade piece for Huntington come the trade deadline next season or even this offseason — teams always seemed to be in desperate need of quality bullpen arms.

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  11. MarkInDallas says:

    As any cringing observer of Capps’ glorious flameouts will tell you, Capps’ fast ball simply seemed extremely flat and was fooling no one. As pretty much a one pitch thrower, Capps success completely depends on this one pitch being extraordinary and being able to command it. Loo at how his bread and butter has declined…

    Capps’ FB horiz movt (avg = -6.0 inches):
    2007: -5.8
    2008: -5.1
    2009: -4.3

    Capps’ FB vert movt (avg = 8.7):
    2007 10.2
    2008: 9.6
    2009: 9.2.

    So, when he was very good, he had average horizontal movement and exceptional vertical movement. He has gradually declined to have below average horizontal movement and near average vertical movement.

    This hasn’t just happened this year – it was a process over the last 2 years.

    Capps’ tRA over that time:
    2007: 3.24
    2008: 4.07
    2009: 5.19

    Capps recently said he was going to solve his problem by throwing more fastballs. He felt that as he was throwing more sliders, that was affecting his fastball command.

    However, these numbers suggest that throwing more fastballs won’t fix his problem, because there’s a problem with how that fastball is moving, not just the command of it. And it has gone downhill not for just this past year, but for the last 2 years.

    Much more than his change-up, which he only throws 5% of the time, the main problem is simply that his only exceptional pitch has now declined to below average.

    If he can get his movement back on his fast ball, he can regain some effectiveness. If he can’t, he won’t bounce back anywhere near where he was.

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  12. Sekrah says:

    There have been concerns in the Pirates organization about Capps’ work ethic/conditioning. I’m sure this weighed in on Huntington’s decision.

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  13. Hey, how are you? Great stuff. When I put up my bike I always use my battery tender. It has added to the life of my battery, in fact I have not changed my battery in six years and my bike starts at a moments notice. Just a trickle charger is not enough you need to use the tecnology of the battery tender.

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