Twins overvalued the save stat and overpaid for Matt Capps

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Matt Capps was available for nothing this offseason.

Non-tendered by the Pirates in December following a career-worst season 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 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.

A scout thinks the Astros strike out too much. The Astros have the lowest strikeout total in baseball.

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Great moments in scouting. MLB.com’s Richard Justice spoke to an unnamed scout about the Astros, currently holding the American League’s best record at 76-47. The scout said that the Astros strike out too much and it will catch up with them. Justice pointed out that the Astros have the lowest strikeout total in baseball. The scout responded, “I don’t believe that.”

Justice, of course, is correct. The average major league team has struck out 1,006 times entering Sunday’s action. The Astros have by far the lowest total at 827, followed by the Indians at 881 and the Pirates at 882.

This scout doesn’t represent all scouts, but this is one of the major problems that advocates of statistics were trying to highlight before Sabermetrics became popular a decade ago. It’s a pattern. Person believes thing. Person either cherry-picks evidence to defend belief or is shown evidence that belief is not factually true and ignores it. Person refuses to change belief, using one of many excuses.

The other problem this highlights is the fallacy of “the eye test,” which is shorthand for treating a scout’s observations as sacrosanct due to his or her experience and knowledge of the game. In this case, the scout ignored easily accessed information, went with his gut, and turned out to be completely wrong. Furthermore, if “the eye test” were legit, the scout would’ve known that, for example, Yulieski Gurriel and Jose Altuve hardly ever strike out (11.1 and 12.4 percent strikeout rates, respectively). In fact, no one on the Astros’ roster (min. 230 PA) has a strikeout rate above 21 percent; the league average is 21.5 percent.

This isn’t to impugn the practice of scouting as a whole. There are a lot of things scouts can tell you about a player that data cannot and that has value. But for easily-researched claims like “the Astros strike out too much,” there’s no reason to trust a scout over the stats.

Mets acquire Jacob Rhame from Dodgers

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The Mets acquired right-handed reliever Jacob Rhame from the Dodgers, the team announced on Sunday. Rhame is the player to be named later in the trade that sent outfielder Curtis Granderson to Los Angeles on Friday night. He’s expected to report to the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate.

Rhame, 24, pitched through his second Triple-A campaign with the Oklahoma City Dodgers in 2017, collecting two saves in 41 appearances and logging a 4.31 ERA, 1.9 BB/9 and 10.3 SO/9 through 48 innings. While his ERA saw a sharp spike from its modest 3.29 mark in 2016 (perhaps thanks in part to a midseason DL stint due to an undisclosed injury), he’s controlling the ball better than he has in several years and has drawn some attention with a fastball that occasionally touches 98 MPH on the radar gun.

The Mets’ bullpen hasn’t been at its finest over the last few weeks, ranking 16th among its major league competitors with a collective 4.50 ERA and 2.4 fWAR, but likely isn’t looking to add an extreme fly ball pitcher to its staff just yet. Until he gets his big league break, Rhame will beef up Triple-A Vegas’ relief corps alongside fellow right-handers Yaisel Sierra, Joe Broussard and Josh Ravin.