Matt Capps: The “New Nick Punto”?

UPDATE: Just a quick midafternoon update. MLB.com’s Kelly Thesier’s report from the Twins Caravan  included a couple of notable items: She reported that Dave St. Peter announced that the Twins will be unveiling a bronze statue of Tony Oliva outside Gate 6 at Target Field on/about Opening Day (YAY!).  In addition, she (and other various media reporters) provided an update on Harmon Killebrew’s ongoing battle with cancer. Kelly also included this link to the Get Well, Harmon Blog for anyone wishing to pass on messages to Killebrew. – JC 

Based on early returns, it’s starting to look to me like relief pitcher Matt Capps could give Michael Cuddyer a run for the money in the race to replace Little Nicky Punto as the Twins’ MOTO (Most Often Trashed Online… a term I just made up) player for 2011 among the “blexperts” (blogger/commenter experts… another term I just made up. Am I on a roll here, or what?). I have to say, I really don’t understand the disdain so many people have for Capps.

Photo: Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner

On Tuesday, the Twins announced they had reached a contract agreement with Capps that avoided arbitration. They signed Capps to a one-year, $7.15 million deal for 2011. Based on the electronic reaction, you would have thought the Twins just signed Brett Favre to pitch.

I’ve been trying to figure out WHY Capps’ signing caused so much consternation.

I know that it’s widely believed among the blexperts that closers are overpaid because the Save statistic is overvalued. They are and it is.

It’s kind of funny, though, how two years ago so many people downright demanded that the Twins, with a new stadium on the horizon, give then-34-year-old Joe Nathan whatever it would take to stay in a Twins uniform. And the Twins did… to the tune of a contract that guaranteed Nathan something like $35 million over three guaranteed years plus an option year. The primary concern at the time, as I recall, was simply that the signing may have made it difficult for the Twins to also afford also re-signing Joe Mauer (which, of course, it didn’t).

But now, folks are downright apoplectic that Bill Smith would give Matt Capps $7+ million, while letting Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch leave town via free agency and trading away JJ Hardy. The argument is something like, “the Twins could have kept two of those pitchers or a starting shortstop instead of Capps.”

Well… first of all… no they couldn’t have. Hardy was no longer going to be the Twins’ starting shortstop regardless of what the Twins did with their bullpen… the two things weren’t related whatsoever… and Guerrier, Crain and Fuentes all signed elsewhere for multi-year deals with total values well above what the Twins have committed to Capps.

Still, some maintain that, “the Twins could have paid Rauch half as much and had a pitcher just as good as Capps.” Seriously? Even totally forgetting the Save statistic, when you compare the two over the last half of 2010, you would have to get very creative to make a statistical case that  Rauch is “as good” as Matt Capps. There was a reason the Twins traded for Capps, whether a person wants to believe it or not.

Photo: AP/Ted S Warren

And Fuentes? Look… I’d have loved to have him back with the Twins because he absolutely shuts down lefty hitters. But there’s a reason the Angels gave him up and it has nothing to do with “Saves”. It has to do with his .747 OPS against him in the first half of the season, on the heels of an even worse .830 OPS the second half of 2009. The guy has not been strong against right handed hitters in a while.

As for Guerrier and Crain, hey… both guys have served the Twins well and they were entitled to go after the free agent money. But it would have been absolutely nutty to match the three-year deals they ended up signing elsewhere. The Twins offered arbitration to Crain and he (wisely) turned it down. They didn’t offer it to Guerrier because they were afraid he wouldn’t turn it down and they’d be stuck paying a 30-something middle reliever they have no confidence in ever being more than a middle releiver $5+ million.

While the Twins appear hopeful that Joe Nathan will be fully recovered to start the year, there’s no way they can be sure and absolutely need a Plan B in place. Since Crain and Guerrier were certainly not returning and Fuentes has not been effective enough to provide reliable back up in case Nathan isn’t his old self, Capps is obviously the best Plan B. So why do so many blexperts think keeping Matt Capps is a mistake?

Could it really be that people think Capps is taking a spot that should go to someone that came up through the Twins’ system (e.g. Crain, Guerrier, Pat Neshek, or a prospect such as Anthony Slama) and still hold it against him that Bill Smith traded catching prospect Wilson Ramos to get him? 

There’s really no other good reason not to like having this guy (and frankly, even this reason is damn silly… it’s time to get over the Ramos-love, folks!). Capps throws harder than any of the bullpen arms that left, with the possible exception of Crain. He throws harder than Joe Nathan. Is his fastball more hittable than we’d like? Yes… but that’s exactly what a lot of people have criticized Crain for over the years and Capps’ career strikeout/walk ratio is better than any of the departing guys (especially when you factor out the oddly high number of intentional passes the Pirates ordered Capps to give out… could he really have faced Barry Bonds THAT often?).

Photo: Knuckleballs/Jim Crikket

Capps, at just 27 years old, may just improve a bit yet, as well. Of the departing arms, only Crain (at 29) is still south of 30. Go back and look at where Joe Nathan (or pretty much any of today’s top relievers not named Mariano Revera, for that matter) were at age 27 and compare them with Capps. How many of them already had four seasons of entering games in critical situations under their belts?

By the way, a closer may not be getting used most efficiently by always being saved for the 9th inning, but almost every time he enters a game, he’s coming in to a situation where having a bad night is very possibly going to cost his team the game. A guy who comes in and coughs up a 3 run lead in the 6th inning can take a seat and tell himself, “I just didn’t have it tonight,” while he watches his team mates try to fix the damage. The closer who has that kind of night doesn’t have that luxury. Closers may not deserve to get paid 10 times what middle relief pitchers do… but getting paid 2-3 times that going rate is not outragious. While you’d like to think every pitcher at the Major League level has that sort of mental toughness, it’s simply not the case.

One final thought on Matt Capps…

The stat website baseball-reference.com performs some sort of calculation (supposedly using a method adopted originally by the patron saint of stat-heads, Bill James) to determine each Major Leaguer player’s top 10 “most similar” players. According to that site, Matt Capps’ closest comparable player is the Padres’ closer, Heath Bell. The same Heath bell that many blexperts were crying for the Twins to trade for when Joe Nathan blew his elbow out a year ago.

Capps is six years younger than Bell and the Padres avoided arbitration with Bell on Tuesday by signing him to a $7.5 million contract… $385K more than the Twins are paying Capps. And, just for context, Bell’s salary accounts for just about the same percentage of the Padres’ anticipated 2011 payroll as Capps’ and Nathan’s pay… combined… do of the Twins’ payroll.

I’m glad Matt Capps is a Twin and I expect others will be, too, by the end of the season.

- JC

19 thoughts on “Matt Capps: The “New Nick Punto”?

  1. Great piece!

    Matt Capps = Nick Punto is an interesting comparison, but, really, does anyone want to see Matt Capps slide head-first into first base?

  2. JC, I don’t think the Capps hate is necessarily about Capps at all. I think it’s more a bubbling over of many various frustrations from blexperts regarding the Twins off-season so far. We’ve seen the Twins lose 4 main bullpen arms and an above-average SS in return for an unproven Japanese 2nd baseman, Capps, and a blue-print for a Casilla-Nishioka SS-2B battery.

    “Well… first of all… no they couldn’t have. Hardy was no longer going to be the Twins’ starting shortstop regardless of what the Twins did with their bullpen… the two things weren’t related whatsoever”

    I don’t understand that remark, mostly because they are related by a thing called ‘money.’ The Twins, in my opinion, would have been a lot better off using that $7.15M to keep Hardy than they were using it to re-sign Capps. Hardy, being an every-day type player (ideally) at a high-profile defensive position is more valuable than a reliever, no matter what their stats.
    I don’t think anyone is saying Capps is a bad pitcher, he pitched pretty well with the Twins for part of last season and has decent career numbers. It’s just the overall bad feelings about this off-season that, I think, brought the onslaught of criticism regarding the Capps move.

  3. k-bro: Yikes… scary image. No, I don’t want to see that! In fact, unless he’s over there covering 1B on a ground ball to Morneau, I don’t want to see Capps anywhere near 1B.

    AK: Whether people like it or not, the Twins decided to improve their speed by adding Nishioka and Casilla to the everyday line-up. Nobody for a moment said “hey, if we dump Hardy, we’ll have money for Capps.” In fact, the money the Twins are spending on Nishioka is pretty much a wash with Hardy’s money on a single year basis. They spent 5 mil to post and 3 mil per year in pay. Prorated, thats just under 5 mil per year out of the Twins pocket for Nishioka. Hardy settled with the O’s for 5.85 mil, I believe.

    Just like people need to get over the trading of Ramos, they need to get over the decision to trade Hardy. Would I have done things this way? No… I advocated improving the team speed by making changes in the OF. But the Twins decided to do it in the middle infield. That change was going to get made regardless of anything they would eventually do with the bullpen.

    Also… anyone who says they should have used the Capps money for Hardy must also be saying they would be fine with having NO returning bullpen arms but Nathan and Mijares (since you just gave Capps’ money to Hardy, rather than to any of the guys who left via free agency). Would anyone seriously feel good going in to ST with just Nathan and Mijares returning?

  4. A) I believe Nick Punto was the second coming of Denny Hocking, which would have made Capps the third coming of Hocking?
    B) For me, personally, as someone who was not a fan of Punto as a baseball player (great guy though, and wonderful for the Twin Cities community) I think the difference between Punto and Capps is that people won’t get to the stadium and groan when they see #8 in the lineup.
    C) When factoring in people’s disdain for Capps, be sure not only to include the salary, but the departure of Wilson Ramos
    D) Part of my problem with Punto and his re-signing a couple years ago was how much the Twins signed him for. They were really bidding only against themselves when they gave him that contract and that bothered me. Capps would have received about this much via arbitration anyways, and he fills a definite need the Twins have always had. The Twins have always built the bullpen on the tenet of throwing strikes which often sacrifices velocity. It’s pretty good for a rotation, but in the bullpen, I would like to see more guys that can blow batters away, and Capps has a good history of doing that. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m usually pretty pessimistic, but I am high on Capps.

  5. Ryan, I did mention the Ramos factor… and like I said, people need to get over it.

    As for Punto, I always felt people were far too rough on him. All he ever did as a Twin was go where he was asked to go and do his best with the talent level he had been given. It wasn’t his fault the Twins were unable/unwilling to pay or develop someone better. I agree that the Twins paid too much on his last contract, but is that Punto’s fault? If guys with more talent would put out the effort he has for the Twins, I’d be very happy and the Twins would win more games.

    I’m glad you agree with me on Capps. That makes 2 of us in Twinsville… one more and maybe we can get jackets! :)

  6. You did mention Ramos. Sorry, when it gets over about 20 words, my reading comprehension goes way down.

    As for Punto, blame and guilt are often not the same thing, and people blamed Punto, much as they may Capps, despite not being guilty of paying the contract they receive.

  7. Good work with the new words you made up.

    I think the Twins are going to have to rely heavily on Capps at the beginning of the year as Nathan goes through some struggles. That might change some opinions in regards to Capps.

    I really want to like Capps so I hope that Cuddyer is the new Punto over Capps. I really don’t want Nishioka to be the new Punto. That could be bad.

  8. Ryan, shhhhhhh don’t let Babs here you say that about the length of the post… she’ll start making me cut them down again!

  9. I think it’s a combination of two things (stuff I believe you already covered).

    1. Losing Ramos. I know you already talked about it, but I think many fans overvalued him, especially after his first 2 games in the major leagues, and they perceive Capps to be a worse pitcher than he actually is. It may seem that he nearly blew plenty of games with the Twins, but as you mentioned on Seth’s podcast last night, Capps had a 2.00 ERA with a 1.26 WHIP and 16 of 18 in save opportunities.

    I think a lot of people were disappointed when they heard the Twins received Capps for Ramos (and actually the Twins gave up Joe Testa and cash also), but he’s not that bad of a pitcher.

    2. People believe that the Twins could have gotten 2 relievers for Capps’ salary. That’s true, but Fuentes is best used as a lefty-only reliever, and he doesn’t deserve $5 million to do that. Crain and Guerrier aren’t making that much yearly, but I don’t think the Twins wanted to commit multiple years to either pitcher. Finally, considering the fact that the Twins stripped Rauch of the closer job and gave it to Capps after last season’s trade, I think that’s enough evidence to say that the Twins liked Capps more than Rauch.

    I’m one of the people that is frustrated the Twins kept Capps over everyone else, but I’m starting to accept it. An important thing to keep in mind is that Capps has really had only one bad season in his career, and that was 2009.

  10. The “speed” thing that this front-office is obsessed with right now is completely mis-guided. No one has ever really been able to answer the question, “do the Twins have someone with more than a mediocre understanding of advanced statistics?” Does anyone know? Defense correlates much better with success than speed does, in fact, 12 out of the last 18 World Series participants had a defense that was in the Top 10 in the Major Leagues. I’m just saying, more speed doesn’t do much for you. D-Span was pretty much the only one stealing bases last year and the Twins won 90+ games.

  11. Bryz: In the interest of accuracy, I believe it was actually Seth that mentioned the ERA/WHIP stats for Capps. I mentioned his K/BB rate, I think. I posted earlier in the post-season that I felt the Twins needed to keep either Crain or Capps as a Plan B in case Nathan isn’t ready, but couldn’t afford the luxury of both. Given that Crain would have commanded a 3 year commitment and that by signing Capps instead, the Twins also get the supplemental draft pick to compensate for losing Crain, I think they made the right choice. I can understand you aren’t quite ready to join Ryan and me in the “club” yet, but I’ll order a jacket in your size for when you are ready! :)

    AK: I agree with both you and the Twins… I agree with them that more speed was needed… I agree with you that adding some of it in a corner OF spot would have been a good idea. As I also said in an earlier post, it dumbfounds me that the Twins could conclude they needed more speed because of how Target Field plays… yet didn’t recognize that they needed that speed in the OF because of how Target Field plays! As for your contention that nobody has been able to answer the question of whether the Twins have someone on staff who analyzes advanced statistics, I disagree… that question seems to have been answered… unfortunately, the answer remains, “no, they don’t”.

  12. I like Capps well enough. I don’t mind having him around. I’d like to see him kick some ass this year, and I’d be perfectly happy to see him do a better-than-adequate job. Sure, Ramos was a kid with a lot of talent, and he’ll make some team a really nice starting catcher someday. I hope that the Twins don’t need a starting catcher anytime in the next six years, which made Ramos awesome trade bait. I do miss Little Hosy Morales, who will make some team an awesome backup catcher.

    I ‘m a little disappointed that Perkins got a deal, though. I feel like that’s definitely some money that could have been better used.

  13. lisa, I haven’t read anyone who’s thrilled with the prospect of giving Glen Perkins another shot. He certainly hasn’t endeared himself to the fan base, for whatever reason. That said, he’s got one thing going for him that, almost by itself, is enough to get $700K from the Twins… he’s left handed.

    Assuming they want to use Mijares for more than just getting out LH hitters, they’re going to need at least one more lefty in the pen… and two more would be nice. Other than Perkins, the only other contenders for a LOOGY role would be Rule V draftee Scott Diamond and… if he isn’t given a rotation spot… Brian Duensing. There are a couple of other lefty arms among the “non-roster invitees” coming to camp, but I imagine the Twins are hoping either Perkins or Diamond (or both) perform well. Given the time and money already invested in Perkins, I guess I don’t mind the Twins committing three-tenths of one percent of their payroll to him at this point.

  14. The disdain for Matt Capps seems to come from the fact that he has given up runs in save situations. Twins fans are so spoiled by Joe Nathan that we expect nothing but perfection from them. Capper was brought in as insurance, pure and simple. Do the Twins expect Nathan to be ready to step back into the closer role right away? No. That’s why they have Capper in the first place.

    As for the people complaining that the Twins shouldn’t have traded Wilson Ramos, he was traded for a very good reason. Some wish the Twins would have kept him so he could be called up and be a right-handed DH in addition to a backup catcher. The Twins felt that this was wasting Ramos’ talents. He SHOULD be an everyday catcher, not the guy sent in once or twice a week to give Joe Mauer a break. The only way Ramos could be a starting catcher is with another team, and the Nationals still need a lot of help if they want to compete.

    Also, I am eagerly anticipating Carl Pavano taking us on another mustache ride for the next two years.

  15. FWIW, I prefer blogspert, or maybe bloxpert :)

    I also prefer the “most often frequently overly-shat on” designation (or MoFoSho) :)

  16. shannon: the video clip I saw tonight of Pavano showed him with a goatee and a barely-visible ‘stache… I wonder if Bill Smith had the foresight to put a mandatory-stache clause in his contract!

    YF, I like those… you’re imagination is clearly so much better than mine! (Not that it takes much to be better than mine.) By the way… as much as the Twins needed to get Pavano back in the fold, I have to admit that it almost would have been worth it to see him choose the accept the reported deal his agent was discussing with the Evil Empire, just for the pure entertainment value of the inevitable fan reaction out of the Bronx!

  17. hey! I can finally post!

    I would of preferred the Twins sign Fuentes instead of Capps, but I like Capps enough. Its not like this is a huge commitment, only 1 year. And he is a guy who can close out games and save some innings on Nathan’s arm (I imagine Nathan is going to be eased into things, maybe not saving back to back games, that kind of stuff)