It has been a long time since the Twins needed a long-term option to close games, and it’s not a position they’re used to having to think about. In the 20 years between 1990 and 2009, the Twins had 17 seasons where a pitcher recorded 20 saves, of those, 13 were attributed to either Rick Aguilera or Joe Nathan. Unfortunately for the Twins, Aguilera retired in 2000 and Nathan hasn’t been a real option since he missed the 2010 season after tearing his UCL in spring training. As much as the Twins have had a few years to prepare for Nathan’s departure, there’s a substantial difference between patching a one-year hole and finding the team’s next stopper for the next 8-10 years.
When Nathan fled the Twin Cities to close where the “coyotes wail along the trail” (Deep in the heart of Texas), I speculated that the Twins would choose to use Glen Perkins at the end of games rather than going after someone on the free agent market. After all, Perkins was not only the Twins’ best relievers in 2011, he had the 11th highest WAR among all relievers, and one of the few members of the Twins’ pen that performed better than expected. Instead of entrusting Perkins with the closer’s job, the Twins chose to bring back one of 2011’s two closers, Matt Capps.
To the credit of almost everyone involved in the decision to bring Capps back — from Manager Ron Gardenhire to members of the front office to Capps himself — everyone has been very up front about two things: First, Capps was bad in 2011. Second, the expectation is that he will be much better in 2012.
There’s reason to believe in that second point. Like many of his teammates last year, Capps wasn’t exactly the picture of health in 2011, as he battled forearm and wrist injuries during the season. Unlike many of his teammates, Capps never went on the DL, which pushed his injuries a bit off the radar. The exact extent to which those injuries affected his performance is something we can do little more than speculate about, but a healthy Capps has to be better than an injured Capps. He lost at least a full mile per hour off all of his pitches, save his slider, which gives some credence to the idea that injuries were at least partially to blame for his poor season.
The key word there is partially. Two things really hurt Capps — besides his wrist and forearm — and neither is uniquely related to his injuries, though they could have been exacerbated by them. The first was his home run rate, which is something Capps seems to struggle with every other year or so. His flyball rate jumped nearly 10 percent and his HR/FB increased 3 percent, which is not a recipe for success. Second, Capps’ already low strikeout rate plummeted to 4.66 K/9, which severely limited his ability to pitch out of trouble if there were runners on base. In fact, Capps struck out just five of the 71 hitters he faced with runners in scoring position last year, a paltry 7 percent. Capps may never be a major contributor in strikeouts, but that’s a remarkably low rate even for him as his career strikeout rate with RISP is about 16 percent.
Waiting in the wings behind Capps is the aforementioned Perkins, whose conversion to the bullpen last year was an unexpected boon for the team as he posted the highest K/9 of anyone who threw more than three innings. Perkins’ lack of a track record as a reliever makes his spontaneous success a bit suspicious, but nothing in his peripherals seem at all out of line. His velocity increased almost two full MPH over his 2010 fastball velocity and he generated far more swings-and-misses, which explain the rapid rise in his strikeouts. He induced groundballs at a repeatable rate and his BABIP was actually above his career average; neither his FIP nor his xFIP nor his SIERA portend regression, which makes me comfortable suggesting that he’ll be effective again in 2012.
So, these two follow largely the same trope as the other handcuffs I’ve profiled so far, but here’s where it breaks down: I don’t recommend drafting Perkins — I don’t recommend drafting Capps either, but AL-Only players may have to grit their teeth and bear it — and here’s why. As good as Perkins is, he doesn’t have the strikeout rate of Kenley Jansen or Vinnie Pestano, and while I think he could be an asset in the rate categories, the fact that he isn’t going to be a big contributor in any of the counting categories makes him less appealing to me. Put another way, every time a pitcher takes the mound, especially a reliever, there is a risk he’ll inflate rate stats, but that’s typically balanced by the fact that pitchers can only help in counting categories, even if they perform suboptimally. Perkins carries that generalized risk without as much of the balancing force as I typically like to see.
Second, my sense is that Capps’ leash is going to be extremely long, which limits Perkins’ ability to step in and collect saves on anything but an occasional basis. In the interview with Twins AGM Rob Antony I liked above, Antony says that the Twins are looking for Capps to return to his 2010 form, when he was worth 1.2 WAR. Splitting the difference between Capps’ 2010 and his 2011 puts him at 0.8 WAR, which would actually be an above-average season for him based on his career rates. Public opinion seems to be that Capps isn’t secure in his job, but I don’t believe the Twins see things that way at all. Does that mean Capps can’t work himself out of a job? No, with another season like 2011, I don’t think he’d last all year, especially if the Twins find themselves competing for a playoff spot. That said, I don’t believe the team would have brought Capps back at all if he wasn’t going to get at least the first half of the season to prove himself.
Stepping outside the fantasy realm for a moment, having Perkins available as a high-leverage reliever who isn’t tied to the ninth inning is good thing for the Twins. Unlike most of their other relievers, Perkins can keep the ball out of play in a tight spot if need be, which makes him more valuable than if he were racking up saves, but pitching only in traditional closer situations.
Unfortunately, stepping back into the fantasy context, having Perkins put up good numbers as the 8th inning man and Capps grabbing the saves, but not offering much in the way of rate stats or strikeouts, renders them both hard to use. Stay away from both unless Holds are in play — in which case, Perkins becomes a solid play — or unless league depth requires anyone who could conceivably get saves be drafted. Perkins may be Capps’ best available handcuff, but I just don’t see it coming into play unless Capps gets hurt.
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