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.