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.

  • Matt

    No matter how you look at that trade…. Its awful. Trade away a great prospect for a RP that already existed on your 25-man…. and pay him more.

    I know hindsight is 20/20, but sheesh.

    To be fair, I really did try to get excited about the Twins finally “going for it” at the deadline, but I just kept thinking if we wanted Capps, he could’ve come cheaper.

    I just realized that this post is pretty pointless, but its been a long time since I’ve posted anything here and I am started to get pretty bummed about the Twins. Pardon my rambling.

  • Paddytim

    He’ll yes I’d rather have Ramos catching or Morales or at this point Engelberg from the bad news bears but what was the play last year? Rauch? You do realize he’s insane right? I don’t care what his numbers are consistenly sending him out in money situations is like trusting a forty year old quarterback who doesn’t like to get hit and has judgement to not throw soul crushing picks. Crain? Pass. Matty G? Pass.

    They were trying to win last year and have some insurance for this year.

  • Pedro Munoz

    So Capps blows the lead in the 8th and then loses the tie game in the 9th. Statistical question: If the Twins hadn’t stranded a runner on third in the 8th and had given Capps the lead in the ninth, could he have been credited with two blown saves in one game?

  • chris

    i think it should be counted as 2 BS….but i do not think…the mlb stats will give it…

  • AM.

    The trade seems to have been Ramos for Capps AND keep Capps over Hardy.

  • mc

    Terrible move followed by a terrible off season which should be followed by a replacement of the guy calling the shots. Now is that Gardy or Smith?

  • grubah

    A player cannot get 2 blown saves, because if he blows a save and we then retake the lead, he is now in line for the WIN. As crazy as that seems…

  • Derp

    Is this REALLY worth regurgitating for the 10th time?

  • TR

    Like birds flying north in the spring, I always know I can count on a Wilson Ramos rant after a Capps blown save…

  • mike wants WINS

    I think it is considered nice to say I agree with Aaron and that his post is well written. I also agree with A.M.

  • Pedro Munoz

    grubah, I think that’s right. The ninth would not have been a save opportunity, so it could not have been a blown save.

    In any event, Capps’ failure in this game was so epic that it is difficult to describe it. He failed, was given a second chance, and failed again.

  • mike wants WINS

    I find Gardy’s comments ripping Valencia sad, given the many things he could have chosen to comment on after that game.

  • Al Pal

    Aaron, Obviously statistically you are correct, but the one thing you (and other sabrmetric fans) ignore in this argument is the fact that there are indeed relievers that can’t mentally handle the 9th inning. In theory those 3 outs are the same as any other, but that’s not always in a guys head.

    In this case I don’t think it’s a factor, because Rauch didn’t seem to have a problem last year, but I don’t think you can say any reliever could close just as well as he could set up.

  • mike wants WINS

    Actually, since the average closer closes at a pretty set rate, the difference is between, let’s take the extreme, 80% and 90%. At 40 opportunities, that is s a difference of 4 blown saves over a year. Of those, what percent would a team lose? Half? We are talking about maybe, on the outside, 2 losses a year. The cost differntial is the cost of JJ Hardy, or having two good relievers (or three) instead of only one. It certainly isn’t actually worth it, not when you are resource constrained. If you have a budget that let’s you keep your bullpen intact, and your starting SS, then sure, it might be worth it. But if you are trading your SS to save money, and letting your entire bullpen go to save money, then it isn’t worth the extra millions…..

  • JoeK

    This depresses me. Bill Smith has made lots of questionable moves and some that are just downright awful. Too bad he’ll be around for as long as he wants to be. When does football season start?

  • TerisPlug

    Between Bill Smiths off the field moves and Gardys on the field moves………..I am perplexed.

  • David

    No matter if you buy into the “mental make-up” of a closer or not, I think it’s clear that there is no mentality that Capps possesses over Rauch that warrants what the Twins gave up for Capps (Ramos + $4 million in salary just to keep Capps for this year).

  • jimbo92107

    Would the Nationals trade Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps?

    I think not. That would be incredibly stupid.

  • Patrick

    At the time, Ramos was worth more to others than he was with us. We had a healthy Mauer and Morales as backup.

    The REALLY stupid move was getting rid of both Ramos and Morales.

  • WalterSolbcheck

    My God. Gleeman’s last two posts were chuck full of sad truths.

    This season is an abomination.

  • TMW

    Matt Capps ruined my birthday yesterday….twice!

  • Pedro Munoz

    I just want to scream when I think about this. AAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • brian

    Even though I’m feeling lazy about it, it might be smart to find a hobby or exercise this summer. I know I can’t stop my AG addiction, but the Twins and AG with nothing else outside of that world this year is not going to be healthful. Even with a miraculous turnaround and everyone healthy, and even a surprise trade, the Twins are probably no better than 6 games out of first. More likely, it will be a total collapse and a year end fire sale, knowing the next year is lost too, circa 1993-2002. The sad thing is that they are probably not going to be able to even spend their way out of this hole either. Even worse, the stats will probably show that a Ramos or Morales, a Hardy, Guerrier or even a Punto would have easily been the difference. This might a new morale rock bottom for AG world.

  • Kurt

    lol I admire you Aaron. To be such a good writer and so invested in a team that frustrates the absolute hell out of you. It’s a joke that you even have to write such a pathetic, yet so true write-up about poor decision making. I couldn’t do it, but oh how I love reading it!

  • bill

    Let’s not forget about the “trade” that brought Nathan to the Twins in the 1st place. AJ cancer for Nathan, Liriano and Boof. Now that was a lopsided trade!

  • frightwig

    Yeah, A.J. is such a cancer that the White Sox won a championship with him handling the pitching staff, and have kept him for 7 years and counting….

  • frightwig

    It’s also worth noting that Rauch this season is 5/6 in save opportunities while posting a 3.07 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and .177 BAA in 14.2 IP, for $3.5M. Clearly, he lacks the mental toughness and pedigree for the 9th inning.

  • Sean

    Eh Wrong… Ramos has had 1 good month in the majors. He isn’t a top prospect and will never be more than a back up catcher. Capps has proven to be a solid if not spectacular relief pitcher. This article was published right after a tough outing. Hmm… Wonder why that is? Oh yeah, because the author couldn’t think of anything else to write. Oh Matt Capps and his zero walks in 17 inning with 14 hits and 9Ks had a bad game. Time to dump on him cause the bloggers LOVE Ramos. Ramos isn’t anything but a somewhat fielding Jose Morales. Yeah he dominates the NL. See Nick Punto for info.

  • David

    Next year is most likely gone too. I don’t understand why Bill Smith has job security. He’s created a perfect storm of perhaps perpetual failure.