The Nationals last year were last in the league with a 57% save conversion rate. Their relief pitchers overall were the worst in the league by a third of a run with 5.40 runs per game. In save situations, the average opposing player hit .285 / .374 / .468, about equal to David Wright or Matt Kemp. To me, things bottomed out when Kip Wells of all people was given the closer job, converting just two of seven save chances.
When you have a bullpen as totally incompetent as the Nationals', no one player can be the answer. Matt Capps, we hope, will provide the Nationals with maybe 50 quality, high-leverage innings (even elite closers get used in some low-leverage situations, especially on bad teams). But they'll need far more help than that. As bad as the team was in the 9th in 2009 (opposing hitters .278 / .348 / .460), they were even worse in the 8th (.292 / .386 / .469).
And the Nationals really have few if any solid in-house solutions. Mike MacDougal is probably gone, and that's likely for the best anyway, as his 14.0% walk rate is at least three points higher than he can succeed with consistently. Drew Storen might be able to help at some point, but he certainly shouldn't be rushed. Tyler Clippard was impressive--especially his 27.2% strikeout rate. But he also walked too many 13.0%, especially for an extreme flyball pitcher and gets killed by righties. And his .201 BABIP makes him look more like the next Steven Shell than the next Chad Cordero. Jason Bergmann is a fine guy to have around if you can spot him against righties, but if he's in your top two or three bullpen arms, that's not good enough. Brian Bruney and Doug Slaten are hardly shoo-in solutions.
Matt Capps immediately becomes the best arm in the bullpen. But that's not saying much. How good is he? In 2007-8, Capps had 39 saves with a 2.58 ERA and 4.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the Pirates. But in 2009, he cratered to a 5.80 ERA. His walk rate doubled, and his tRA rose by more than a run.
He also had some bad luck, as his BABIP rose by almost 100 points from .272 to .370. His homerun-to-flyball rate rose from 6.8% to 13.5%. BABIP and HR/FB are both subject to a lot of random fluctuation, and his 2009 rates were unusually high. But the problem is that his 2007-2008 BABIPs and HR/FB rates were unusually low as well. So Capps's true skill level over the last three years certainly isn't as bad as his outcomes in 2009, but it probably isn't as good as 2007-2008 either.
He's a fastball-slider-change pitcher, and one concern is that according to Pitch F/X, his change-up velocity rose from an average of 84 mph to 87 mph, leaving only about 5-6 mph between his fastball and change, not quite enough to fool people.
He's also been hit pretty hard by lefties, which is a problem for any closer, but especially against lefty-heavy lineups like Philadelphia.
Bottom line, this is a fine move for the Nationals. They still have problems in the bullpen, but Capps is a step. I expect an ERA in the low-4s, good enough not to lose the closer job and certainly an upgrade, but nothing great. The upside is there for him to again be an above-average closer.
I especially like that this is a one-year deal. He can be traded or turned into a draft pick if he remains a type-A. (The Nationals don't have to give up a pick for Capps because the Pirates didn't tender him a contract). And if he repeats 2009, it's only money. We don't know how much money, but assuming it's somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million, it's shot worth taking.
- It's being reported that it's one year and $3.5 million. That works. Clearly, this is a situation where the Nationals bought low on a guy who was desperate for a chance to show he can close. If Capps bounces back to his 2007-2008 form, it'll be brilliant. But all he needs to do is provide 70 innings of mid-4 ERA ball to justify it at this price.