The market for relief pitchers is out of control this off-season. After seeing Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell sign lucrative, long-term deals, the Twins chose to re-sign Matt Capps to a one-year $4.75 million deal. While handing out short-term deals to relievers is typically a smart strategy, Capps wasn’t particularly good last season. Did the Twins make a mistake bringing him back?
After finishing 29th overall in reliever WAR last season, the Twins were in desperate need of bullpen help. In 460.2 innings pitched, the Twins’ bullpen posted the leagues worst FIP and xFIP. While Capps was one of the most recognizable members of that bullpen, he actually hurt the Twins last season.
Though he threw 65.2 innings — most of any reliever on the team — Capps managed a -0.4 WAR last season. The main culprit behind Capps’ decline appears to be his strikeout rate, which fell to an unacceptable 4.66. While Capps has never been identified as a strikeout pitcher, it’s nearly impossible to succeed when you strike out so few batters. Of all relievers that threw at least 50 innings last season, Capps’ K/9 rates as the second worst in baseball.
Capps’ HR/9 rate — which has been a problem for him throughout his career — took a turn for the worse last season as well. Over his career, Capps’ HR/9 has fluctuated from acceptable (2007, 2008 and 2010) to downright terrible (2006, 2009 and 2011). Target Field suppresses home runs, but that didn’t stop Capps from allowing five of them in just 35.2 innings at home last season.
One of the reasons for Capps’ struggles may have been his decreased velocity last season. According to Pitch f/x, Capps’ fastball averaged 93 mph last season. That’s down from 94.1 in 2010, and 93.5 in 2009. While Capps’ fastball still received a positive 4.7 pitch type value last season, it was a much less effective pitch than usual. Over his career, Capps has relied on his fastball as his best pitch. He’ll need to rediscover his velocity if he hopes to return to his old self.
Since the Twins handed out such a cheap, short deal, it’s tough to be extremely critical. While Capps was a main contributor to the Twins’ poor bullpen last season, it’s not as if they had anyone waiting in the wings to take over the closer role. Glen Perkins performed quite well for the Twins last season, but he still only managed to pick up two save opportunities.
The Twins are only paying Capps $4.75 million this season, so he doesn’t even have to perform all that well in order to make the deal worth it for the Twins. When Capps has been healthy, he’s been worth about 1 win per season — equal to the deal he received from the Twins.
If Capps’ struggles last season are the first signs of decline, the Twins may regret the deal. Thankfully, Capps was only signed for one season and the Twins can void his option for only $250,000. Should Capps rebound, the Twins could have an interesting trade chip at the trade deadline. While Capps displayed some worrisome signs in 2011, the Twins took very little risk in hoping Capps returns to form in 2012.