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Matt Capps Returns to Close in Minnesota

Much to our very own Brandon Warne’s chagrin, Matt Capps has returned to the Minnesota Twins, ostensibly to take over the role that he lost to Joe Nathan mid-season, serving as their resident fireman. The Twins have signed Capps to a one-year, $4.5 million dollar deal with a 2013 option for $6 million dollars. Fantasy managers, not to mention the Minnesota faithful, would like to know who plans to show up in 2012, the Matt Jeckyl or Matt Hyde version of Matt Capps.

In the last four seasons, serving as closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Nationals, and the Minnesota Twins, he’s been dominant, and then miserable, twice over. His four year FIP rates as a world class amusement park ride:







In every category where he was good in 2010, he was correspondingly bad in 2011.

His strikeout rate fell from 7.27 K/9 to 4.66 K/9, good for second to last (congratulations, Shawn Camp) for any reliever with at least 50 innings pitched. His swinging strike rate, which was 9.2% in 2010, fell to 6.7% and he was not only getting fewer people to offer at pitches outside the strike zone (39.4% O-swing rate in 2011 to 28.5% in 2010), but batters were making more contact against him across the board, with his O-Contact% and Z-Contact rates at career highs. Matt Capps was simply not fooling anyone in 2011.

In 2010, Capps’ whiff rate on his four seam fastball and cutter was 10.2% and 5.1%, respectively. Not thrilling, but nice. In 2011, his whiff rate on the same offerings fell to 6.9% and 3.6%, respectively. A 3.6% whiff rate on a cutter? Did I mention that Capps wasn’t fooling anyone?

Part of the problem may have been his velocity, which was down from 94 mph in 2010 to 92.9 mph in 2010. And although the sample size is awfully small, his velocity actually was worse in September than it was for most of the season as he was chucking his four seam fastball at an average 93.1 mph and then lost half a mile per hour in the last month, seeing it dip to 92.5. That’s a small change, but it goes against what we typically have come to understand about velocity over the course of a season. And what’s interesting is Capps also started using his fastball less in August and September, going to his slider about 10% more over those two months. Inquiring minds want to know if that fastball was causing some discomfort.

Speaking of Capps’ slider, he throws it about 20% of the time, and it’s nothing short of terrible. It has been below average over his entire career and it was even ineffective when he was putting up good overall numbers. In 2011, it was -1.77 runs below average per 100 pitches, and yet he continues to go to it in two-strike counts over 20% of the time, perhaps thinking it’s his magical out pitch — which couldn’t be further from the truth. It would probably serve Capps well to come up with a decent secondary pitch — and seeing as how he started using his change-up more in the last two months of the season, when the Twins were well out of contention, perhaps he and the coaching staff recognize this.

Lastly, Capps is victimized by left handed batters pretty frequently. In 2011, he held a 5.37 FIP against LHB and gave up home runs at a rate of almost two per 9 IP. Over his career, he’s struggled versus left handers as well, giving up a lot of home runs and striking out very few batters — and part of this has to do with not having much of a strategy beyond the four and two seam fastballs. In 2011, he threw nearly 90% fastballs to left handed batters, and his four seamer tends to be awfully straight which can result in things like this and this (Twin fan warning – may induce vomiting).

For fantasy baseball purposes, I’d consider Matt Capps to be in the last tier for closers, and darn near the bottom. But while his 2011 was pretty putrid, you have to recognize that he’s been successful in the past with the very same stuff. Should Capps regain some of his velocity, it’s not entirely out of the question that he could regress towards his career K rate of about 6.5 K/9 and perhaps that ERA will inch south towards something a little more palatable. But it’s hard to recommend him based on what we saw in 2011, and frankly, if we see the same Matt Capps early in 2012, I’d be surprised if he has the job by mid-season.