May 12, 2011

Proving closers and expensive saves

When the Twins traded Wilson Ramos to the Nationals for Matt Capps last July 30 they touted Capps' status as a closer. And not just any closer, they repeatedly said. Capps was a "proven closer" and an "experienced closer" and an "All-Star closer." Regardless of their wording, the message was clear: They felt that Capps' track record as a closer for the Pirates and Nationals made him a major upgrade over Jon Rauch, who'd been filling in for the injured Joe Nathan.

I hated the move at the time, writing that a prospect as good as Ramos was far too big a price to pay for Capps, whose save totals masked the fact that his actual performance was merely setup-man caliber and not significantly better than Rauch. That stance was viewed as heresy by many Twins fans. After all, they said, the Twins had acquired a proven, experienced, All-Star closer and that would allow them to remove Rauch from a role he clearly was ill-suited to fill.

However, once you strip away the labels and perceptions there simply wasn't much difference between the two pitchers. And certainly not enough difference to warrant giving up a prospect like Ramos for the right to pay Capps three times as much money as Rauch. At the time of the trade Rauch had a 3.05 ERA and was 21-for-25 converting saves. Since the trade Capps has a 2.86 ERA and is 21-for-25 converting saves. And the similarities go even further:

                  IP      ERA     SV     BS     SO/9     BB/9     HR
Rauch then        38     3.05     21      4      6.3      2.1      3
Capps since       44     2.86     21      4      6.1      1.6      4

One pitcher was a career-long setup man whose stint as a fill-in closer was largely treated as a failure. One pitcher was touted as an experienced, proven, All-Star closer whose presence in the ninth inning was apparently worth giving up one of baseball's top catching prospects. And just as their respective numbers beyond save totals suggested at the time of the deal, there's been almost no difference between the two pitchers since the deal.

Well, except that Capps is now being paid $7.15 million by the Twins in his final season before free agency and Ramos is hitting .295/.356/.462 as the Nationals' starting catcher at age 23. Closing is a role, not a skill, and the success rate is 75-80 percent for mediocre relievers, 80-85 percent for good relievers, and 85-90 percent for elite relievers. Paying a premium for an 80-85 percent guy just because he'd done it before was an increasingly costly error in logic.

August 30, 2010

Twins Notes: Thome, Fuentes, Kubel, Neshek, Wimmers, and Span

• Not only has Jim Thome switching from the White Sox to the Twins had a massive impact on the AL Central race, Baseball-Reference.com's blog points out that he's having one of the best seasons ever by a 39-year-old (he actually turned 40 over the weekend, but this is his age-39 season). Here are the all-time leaders in adjusted OPS+ at age 39:

AGE 39              YEAR      PA     OPS+
Barry Bonds         2004     617     263
Ted Williams        1958     517     179
Hank Aaron          1973     465     177
JIM THOME           2010     279     161
Babe Ruth           1934     471     161

Thome has fewer plate appearances than everyone else on that list, but he's on pace to finish with approximately 350 and any time you can make a top-five list alongside Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth you're doing something really right. Paul Molitor is the only other player in Twins history to post an OPS+ above 100 at age 39, hitting .341/.390/.468 in 728 plate appearances for a 116 OPS+ in 1996.

And if you're already thinking about the Twins possibly re-signing Thome for next season, here are the all-time leaders in OPS+ at age 40:

AGE 40              YEAR      PA     OPS+
Willie Mays         1971     537     158
Carlton Fisk        1988     298     155
Edgar Martinez      2003     603     141
Moises Alou         2007     360     137
Dave Winfield       1992     670     137

That's a much different and less impressive list in terms of both names and numbers, which is a good reminder of how tough it is to dominate at age 40. In fact, based on OPS+ no hitter in the history of baseball has ever been as productive as a 40-year-old as Thome has been as a 39-year-old, which is something to keep in mind when it comes to 2011 expectations for the future Hall of Famer. Of course, I loved the signing at the time and would love to see him back.

• I made a rare weekend post analyzing the Brian Fuentes trade, so read that if you missed it Friday night. I wondered how Ron Gardenhire will use Fuentes down the stretch, but so far so good. Gardenhire smartly pulled Nick Blackburn after 8.2 scoreless innings Saturday when he walked speedster Chone Figgins as the tying run in a 1-0 game, bringing in Fuentes to get the 27th out with left-handed slugger Russell Branyan at the plate.

Fuentes dispatched Branyan with ease and in doing so hinted that perhaps Matt Capps won't always get the call in the ninth inning when dangerous left-handed bats are due up. Fans and media instinctively balked at the notion of "closer by committee" when Joe Nathan went down, but if Fuentes isn't needed early in a game bringing him in for tough ninth-inning lefties makes sense. I'm skeptical after the Twins focused on Capps' closing experience to explain that deal.

October 15 is the deadline for the Angels to pick the player to be named later they receive for Fuentes, but all indications are that they're choosing from a list of fairly marginal prospects and some reports even suggest "cash" could be substituted for the player. I already liked the deal when I thought the PTBNL could end up being a mid-level prospect, so a low-level prospect or cash would make it even more of a no-brainer.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about Fuentes' contract status, so let's try to clear it up. He has a $9 million option for 2011 that vests with 55 games finished, but that's a moot point with just 34 so far. He'll be a free agent and get Type A or B status, so in theory the Twins can receive compensation when he leaves. However, that first requires offering Fuentes arbitration and since he could guarantee himself $10 million by simply accepting the Twins won't do it.

Fuentes is a six-week rental, and a good one.

Luke French is the 47th left-handed starting pitcher the Twins have faced in 131 games this year, which means they've been matched up against a lefty 36 percent of the time compared to the league average of 29 percent. Jason Kubel started at designated hitter versus French and has started 34 of the 47 games against lefties despite hitting just .210/.306/.341 off them this season and .232/.312/.352 off them for his career.

Much like Jacque Jones before him, Kubel's career-long ineptitude versus lefties makes him an obvious platoon player who Gardenhire simply refuses to platoon. Even worse, Kubel was in the cleanup spot yesterday, which is the third time he's batted cleanup against a lefty. In fact, he's yet to hit in the bottom third of the lineup versus a lefty this season, batting nine times in the fifth spot and 22 times in the sixth spot along with the three cleanup starts.

And while he was at DH yesterday, Kubel has been in right field for 17 of the 34 starts versus lefties, which means in 13 percent of their total games the Twins have chosen to combine poor defense in right field with a .650 OPS from the middle of the lineup. Not having Justin Morneau since early July has made it impossible for Gardenhire to use his preferred lineups, but in half of Kubel's starts against lefties Morneau was also in the lineup. Platoon him, please.

• Every time the Twins make a change to the bullpen--and there's been no shortage of them recently--I get comments, e-mails, and tweets asking about Pat Neshek. Fans (and bloggers) love Neshek and want to see him succeed after Tommy John surgery, but because the Twins weren't pleased with how he handled his post-surgery finger injury he's become sort of the forgotten man at Triple-A (and is choosing to fly under the radar by not speaking to reporters).

He's pitched well since being sent to Triple-A in early June following a DL stint, going 4-1 with a 3.47 ERA, .263 opponents' batting average, and 24 strikeouts versus six non-intentional walks in 36.1 innings, but certainly hasn't been dominant or close to Rochester's best reliever. He's apparently no sure thing to get a September call-up and based on performance alone--rather than his history and presence on the 40-man roster--no one would be clamoring for Neshek.

Wilson Ramos made his Nationals debut last week, but was only called up for a couple days with Wil Nieves away from the team. Ramos went hitless in his only game before being sent back to the minors, making him 1-for-22 since starting his career with seven hits in his first two games. He has hit .319/.347/.514 in 18 games at Triple-A since being swapped for Capps last month and will be back in Washington when rosters expand later this week.

• After basically taking two months off before signing for $1.3 million a week or so before the deadline, first-round pick Alex Wimmers has been assigned to high Single-A for his pro debut. He's pitched twice so far at Fort Myers, tossing 5.2 scoreless innings with an 8-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .105 opponents' batting average while on a strict pitch count. By assigning him directly to high Single-A the Twins have set him up to advance through the system quickly.

Denard Span was caught trying to steal third base yesterday, so dating back to last season he now has 42 stolen bases while being thrown out or picked off 31 times. Yuck.

August 2, 2010

Twins Notes: Liriano, Slowey, Plouffe, Myers, Ramos, and Eight Years

Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of this blog and the Twins fittingly celebrated by winning their eighth straight game. When it comes to this blog I've been fortunate about many things, not the least of which is that the Twins have been a winning team for almost that entire time. I started blogging on August 1, 2002. Two months later they made the playoffs for the first time since 1991 and they've had just one losing season since then, going 703-591 (.543) overall.

I've been doing this since the summer after my freshman year of college and I sometimes think about how different my life could have been blogging about the Orioles or Pirates or Royals (or 1993-2000 Twins) during that time. Would losing teams have kept my interest for so long? And even if they did, would anyone have wanted to actually read about it? I've met great people and gotten great opportunities thanks to this blog, and timing and luck have played a big part.

I started because I wanted to be a writer and needed to find some kind of audience when the college newspaper wouldn't have me, so eight years, 1,515 posts, and 6.7 million visitors later I'm still amazed the thing lasted more than a month. Eight years is the limit for a presidency and the length of a $184 million contract, but I have no plans to stop any time soon. Whether you've been here since August 1, 2002 or just found the place today, thank you for reading.

And now the stuff you actually came here for ...

• In analyzing the rotation's struggles a couple weeks ago I noted that Francisco Liriano was suffering from some combination of bad luck and bad defense, because while his ERA was still plenty good his secondary numbers showed one of the elite pitching performances in baseball this season. At the time Liriano was coming off a start in which he failed to make it out of the second inning and so some readers found it hard to believe, but he's been unhittable since.

He shut out the Mariners for seven innings yesterday, making him 4-0 with a 33-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just two runs allowed in 29 innings spread over his last four starts. And even his current 3.18 ERA is worse than it should be because Liriano still has one of MLB's highest ball-in-play batting averages. Based on his 150-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio and two homers allowed in 136 innings, Liriano has been the best starter in baseball according to FIP and xFIP.

• Liriano wasn't alone in blanking Seattle's awful lineup, as Kevin Slowey threw eight shutout frames Friday. I avoid relying much on win-loss records to evaluate pitchers and Slowey being 10-5 with a 4.44 ERA when Liriano is 10-7 with a 3.18 ERA isn't fair. With that said, beating the Mariners improved Slowey's career record to 36-20, which is a .643 winning percentage that ranks as the second-highest in Twins history among pitchers with at least 75 starts:

                      W      L     WIN%
Johan Santana        93     44     .679
KEVIN SLOWEY         36     20     .643
Camilo Pascual       88     57     .607
Mudcat Grant         50     35     .588
Jim Perry           128     90     .587

To be clear, that definitely does not mean Slowey "knows how to win" or even that he's been particularly good while posting a 4.40 ERA in 437.1 career innings, but it is kind of interesting.

Trevor Plouffe was recalled from Rochester to replace Nick Punto, whose hamstring strain requires a stint on the disabled list. Plouffe started six games at shortstop when he was called up to replace J.J. Hardy in mid-May, but seems unlikely to play much this time around with Ron Gardenhire committed to Alexi Casilla as the starting second baseman and No. 2 hitter while Orlando Hudson is out.

Plouffe played just 20 of his 770 games at second base in the minors, but like most shortstops should be able to handle the position just fine and in theory could compete with Casilla for the starting job there in 2011 if Hudson isn't re-signed. Plouffe has shown good power at Triple-A with a career-high 15 homers and .462 slugging percentage, but he's hitting just .259 with a .318 on-base percentage and 71-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his third season at Rochester.

• You wouldn't know it by his going 24-for-58 (.414) with 12 extra-base hits in 14 games since the All-Star break, but Joe Mauer has been diagnosed with tendinitis in his right shoulder and received a cortisone shot after going 3-for-4 in Saturday's game. According to Gardenhire an MRI exam revealed no structural damage, but because the soreness "just won't go away" the Twins decided to "put this in there, give it a couple days without throwing, and go from there."

Justin Morneau was initially scheduled to take batting practice before yesterday's game, but opted against it at the last minute in part because it was "family day" and various Twins would be on the field with their kids. Gardenhire explained that Morneau "didn't want to be on center stage" and "wants to ease into it ... with less people around." He hasn't played since taking a knee to the helmet on July 7 and recovering from a concussion is notoriously unpredictable.

• After sending Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa to the Nationals for Matt Capps the Twins failed to make another move prior to Saturday's trade deadline, but they reportedly were close to acquiring Brett Myers from the Astros. Whether or not that would have been a sound move is impossible to say without knowing the players heading back to Houston, but Myers was listed among my preferred starting pitcher targets when examining potential fits two weeks ago.

Despite owning the fourth-worst record in baseball and going into full-scale rebuilding mode by trading Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, the Astros chose not to deal the 30-year-old Myers and instead signed him to a two-year, $21 million contract extension with a $10 million option or $3 million buyout for 2013. That seems like a questionable decision for a team years from contention and certainly suggests the Astros' asking price for Myers in trade was substantial.

• To make room on the 25-man roster for Capps' arrival the Twins sent Nick Blackburn and his $14 million contract to Triple-A. I've made my objection to Blackburn's extension clear since the day it was signed in March, but at this point demoting him to Rochester certainly makes sense. Whether or not Blackburn has the ability to get back on track is up for debate, but obviously it wasn't going to happen while pitching sporadically as a mop-up man in Minnesota.

• Washington assigned Ramos to Triple-A following the trade, but general manager Mike Rizzo said he'll be "at least" a September call-up because "we feel like he's major-league ready." For now the Nationals have Ivan Rodriguez as their starting catcher and the future Hall of Famer is actually signed through 2011, but he's hitting just .264/.291/.345 at age 38 and moving into more of a backup/mentor role next year seems likely if they truly think Ramos is MLB-ready.

• Capps uses "Final Countdown" as his entrance music, which will always remind me of this.

July 30, 2010

Twins get Matt Capps from Nationals for Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa

Matt Capps was available for nothing this offseason. Non-tendered by the Pirates in December following a career-worst campaign that saw him post a 5.80 ERA and .324 opponents' batting average while serving up 10 homers in 54.1 innings, Capps became a free agent and signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Nationals in large part because they were one of the only teams willing to promise him an opportunity to remain a closer.

And last night the Twins decided to overpay for that closing experience, acquiring Capps from the Nationals for Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa. To be clear, Capps is a good, solid late-inning reliever. He bounced back nicely in Washington with a 2.74 ERA and 38-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 46 innings and has a 3.50 ERA in 317 career innings. However, if not for his racking up 93 saves for bad teams I'm convinced the Twins never would have even considered this move.

Much like the Twins turning to Jon Rauch with Joe Nathan sidelined, Capps' reputation as an "experienced closer" comes largely from teams simply giving him a shot to accumulate saves. Rauch has done a perfectly fine job filling in for Nathan, converting 21-of-25 saves with a 3.05 ERA and 27-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38.1 innings, and if given a longer opportunity may have turned himself into an "established closer" just like Capps did. Seriously.

Take a look at their respective career numbers as relievers:

           IP     ERA     FIP    SO/9    BB/9     AVG     OBP     SLG     OPS
Capps     317    3.50    3.80     7.0     1.7    .263    .302    .415    .717
Rauch     402    3.54    3.90     7.5     2.7    .242    .297    .390    .687

Capps has had better control, Rauch has been tougher to hit, and their overall effectiveness is nearly identical across the board. If pressed I'd pick Capps over Rauch because he's younger and has fared better in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), but by far the biggest difference between them is that one has accumulated saves for four seasons while the other has accumulated saves for one season.

No one would ever suggest that trading Ramos for a reliever who's slightly better than Rauch is a sound idea, yet by focusing on the save statistic the Twins have done just that and many fans will instinctively be on board with the move for an "established closer." Now, don't get me wrong: Capps is a quality reliever and represents a clear upgrade to the Twins' bullpen. What he's not is an elite reliever or enough of an upgrade to part with Ramos.

Capps is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player next season as well, which means the Twins essentially traded Ramos and Testa for 1.5 seasons of him. Unfortunately part of his inflated perceived value includes his likely price-tag in arbitration, which is sure to rise from this year's $3.5 million salary to over $5 million (and perhaps well over $5 million) thanks to those same shiny-looking save totals.

Capps makes the Twins better for the final two months of this season and all of next year, but the improvement isn't nearly as large as the "All-Star closer" label would have you believe and the cost involved is significant in terms of both players and money. Next season the Twins will pay a premium for a quality setup man they perceive as something more because of a reliance on a flawed statistic and they gave up a good catching prospect for the right do that.

In fairness, Ramos' value is inflated as well. His historic debut caused the Twins fans who don't know any better to assume that he was destined for stardom and his subsequent struggles at Triple-A have exposed him as a good but not great prospect. However, he still projects as a good defender behind the plate and a 22-year-old being overmatched in his first experience at Triple-A is far from disastrous.

I'm not convinced that Ramos will become a star, but the possibility certainly exists and at the very least he looks capable of developing into a starting-caliber catcher for many years. Joe Mauer's presence meant Ramos had little shot to be that starting-caliber catcher in Minnesota, but that doesn't mean the Twins needed to deal him immediately or when his value was at an all-time low or for an underwhelming return like Capps.

I have no problem with trading Ramos or trading for bullpen help, and in the Twins' minds they just traded him for an "All-Star closer." In reality they traded Ramos for a setup-caliber reliever who accumulated saves on bad teams and is thus overrated and soon overpaid. Among the 93 pitchers who've logged 150-plus relief innings in the past three calendar years, Capps ranks 38th in xFIP, 49th in FIP, 50th in ERA, 61st in strikeout rate, and 85th in opponents' average.

You'd think the Twins would have learned something about the created-not-born nature of the closer role and often spurious value of saves from Rauch's relatively successful stint filling in for Nathan, but instead they just paid a premium for a guy whose perceived value and ability are much higher than his actual value and ability solely because of his role and save total. Capps is a good reliever, but the Twins paid for a great reliever and did so for all the wrong reasons.

July 29, 2010

Breaking News: Twins trade Wilson Ramos to Nationals for Matt Capps

There's no official announcement yet, but I've confirmed with multiple sources that the Twins have agreed to trade Wilson Ramos to the Nationals for Matt Capps.

I'm not a fan of the move, to say the least. I'll have a full write-up shortly.

UPDATE: Twins just announced the deal as official. Joe Testa is also headed to Washington.

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