Thursday, February 11, 2010

Matt Capps v. Kevin Gregg

On Wednesday, in a post on the signings I wish the Nationals had been able to make this winter, I asserted that former Cubs closer Kevin Gregg is "better than Matt Capps." That drew some sharp disagreement in the comments. And while the difference is less than what was implied in the brief bullet point in the post, I stand by it 100%.

First, let's be clear. Gregg and Capps were two of the worst closers in baseball not named "Hanrahan" in 2009. Among relievers with at least 15 saves last year:
  • Capps was 2nd worst (Brad Lidge) in win probability added at -2.83. That means the team would have won 2.83 more games if they had gotten an average performance in Capps' innings. Gregg was 3rd worst at -1.04. In fact, Capps was 2nd worst of any reliever in baseball in this crucial stat. (Kyle Farnsworth was 3rd at -2.15, followed by Luis Ayala at -2.13, if you're interested.)
  • Capps was worst in the league in opposing hitters OPS+ at 146. Gregg was 6th worst at 97.
  • Capps was 2nd worst (Brad Lidge) in ERA+ at 71, while Gregg was 4th worst at 95.
  • Capps was 2nd worst in the percent of inherited runners allowed to score: 57%. Gregg was tied for 13th best at 18%.
Now, in fairness, Gregg and especially Capps had down years in 2009. But before anyone goes bonkers making the case for either of these guys, we need to acknowledge that the near-term history for both of them is pretty ghastly.

The key question is which of these one-year contract recipients (read: the age difference doesn't really matter) can we expect to be better in 2010. Let's start by looking at the projection systems. These aren't gospel, but they have a reasonable track record, and if one player is clearly better than the other, there's usually a consensus:
Gregg (3.90 ERA, 67 IP)
Capps (3.63, 57)

Gregg (4.09, 66)
Capps (4.19, 58)

Gregg (3.93, 65)
Capps (3.58, 65)

Bill James
Gregg (3.60, 65)
Capps (3.47, 57)

Gregg (4.50, 70)
Capps (3.88, 65)
Other than ZIPs, they're pretty close across the board. Marcel likes Gregg better, ZIPs and PECOTA likes Capps, and CHONE and Bill James expect Capps to have a lower ERA in fewer innings, which is close to a wash. But if all you had was these numbers, you'd give a slight edge to Capps.

Still, I like Gregg better for a few reasons. First, there's health. Capps missed a bunch of time at the end of 2008 with throwing shoulder issues, which would be a flag in any case, but considering his heavy workload in '07 and '08, plus his terrible '09, the flags are even bigger and redder for me. Gregg's had a balky knee, but there's nothing worse for a pitcher than an achy shoulder.

Second, Capps is far more hittable. His career strikeout rate is 18.6%, compared to
23.8% in 2009 and 21.3% career for Gregg. No, Ks aren't everything, but over the long haul I have a lot more confidence in guys who can miss bats than guys who can't.

Third, there are the splits. Gregg has a slight lefty-righty split, but nothing unusual. Capps on the other hand gets massacred by lefties. Opposing managers seem to have figured this out, as 2009 was the first season of his career that he saw more lefties than righties. And I vaguely recall some pretty good left-handed hitters in the NL East.

Finally, Gregg's just had success over a longer period of time. Capps was outstanding for two years and terrible for one. Until last year, Gregg had been a pretty useful guy for basically five seasons.

Don't get me wrong--I applauded the Capps signing. Given then need and the cost, I thought it was a reasonable move. But I still think the Nationals are 1-2 solid relievers from having a decently below-average group, and I think they need to add at least one more reliable bullpen arm. Gregg would have been as solid a choice as anyone left out there now.


Mr. Mustache said...

-Capps' 09 BABIP .370 (nearly .100 points higher than ANY previous season where he pitched for more than 4 innings.
-In '09 Capps posted a HR/FB 13.5% (career average of 8.8%)
-As pointed out by fangraphs, neither of these numbers is sustainable.
-Gregg on the other hand, benefited from a generous BABIP of .277. Projections for next year aren't so kind. BJ .293, Chone .279, Marcel .284
-The Fangraphs link also points out that Capps' changeup was quite a bit different than in previous years. I think we can agree that a less effective changeup would cause more drastic splits and that if he is healthy that his Change might be effective again.
-If I'm not mistaken, you've been critical of the bullpen's ability to throw strikes. Herein lies the largest difference between the players (and a major reason why anyone who claims they are "basically the same guy" is mistaken). Comparison of Capps' BB/9 to Gregg's (Capps listed first):
Career= 1.66/4.16
'09= 2.82/3.93
BJames= 1.74/3.74
Chone= 2.37/4.16
Marcel= 2.64/4.09
Career= 4.16/2.26
'09= 2.71/2.37
BJ= 4.09/2.22
Chone= 2.93/1.84
Marcel= 2.76/2.00
-Outstanding vs. Pretty useful?

Will said...

I honestly could care less. They're both average relievers and shouldn't be closers on any half-decent team.

However, was 20 save Mike MacDougal really better than both Capps and Gregg last season??

Steven said...

Walk rate is an important stat, but looking at ONLY walk rate isn't a sound way of evaluating pitcher talent. You have to at least look at K-rate, BB-rate, and batted ball rates together (ie GB/FB rate).

Any pitcher COULD throw all strikes all the time if they wanted. But most pitchers would get pounded.

Capps in the past (less so last year, importantly) has had exceptionally good walk rates. His K-rates have been OK and he's been more of a flyball pitcher. Together, combined with very lucky HR/FB rates, he had 2 very good seasons, though he never had better than bottom-tier closer talent.

You're right Capps had very high BABIP rates last year. That's the reason he's not unemployed right now--it doesn't justify him as a solid closer.

Gregg has his own problems. His K-rates are good, but still not really great. Walk rates are a little worrisome, and he's also too much of a FB pitcher. Again, there isn't a huge gap between them.

Anyway, we'll see. If Capps turns in the "outstanding" performance you forsee, I'll be happy to be wrong.

Steven said...

And Will is right. Who cares? Why not debate who was a better president, Millard Fillmore or Chester A. Arthur. Bo-ring.

My point here really is to just reinforce the "Matt Capps really isn't very good, and folks are expecting way too much" meme.

Positively Half St. said...

Is it worth resigning Joe Beimel to replace one of the middle relievers currently on board? Or is this another shuffling of mediocre talent that will do little to help the team?

Steven said...


Harper said...

I don't know - I think they already have a decently below average group. Do you really think they can't find 4 decently below average guys from what they have now?

I think there are actually two key points (1) these guys aren't good - don't believe the hype (2) the bullpen was so bad for much of last year that "not good" is a drastic improvement

Anonymous said...

"Finally, Gregg's just had success over a longer period of time."

That's not close to true. Gregg had a decent 2 year stint with Florida, but for the 3 years before that, Gregg had a 4.42 ERA and a 101 ERA+. Basically average at best. For his career, he has a 4.08 ERA and a 110+ ERA+. He is good in half his seasons and mediocre in the other half. Capps on the other hand has a 3.61 ERA and a 119 ERA+ and 1 bad season with the other 3 seasons being good. In the 3 years before last season, Capps had a 3.02 ERA (143 ERA+ which is better than any Gregg season) and a 1.06 WHIP with a 4.82 K:BB ratio.

I would bet everything that you are wrong that Gregg is going to have a better season than Capps. I don't think it will be that close. Your track record in predictions isn't exactly stellar considering you have been predicting a John Lannan collapse for 3 years that hasn't happened and probably won't.

Steven said...

Your track record in predictions isn't exactly stellar considering you have been predicting a John Lannan collapse for 3 years that hasn't happened and probably won't.

Dude, I haven't even been blogging for 2 years, nevermind 3. And if you can find anywhere that I've used the words "collapse" and "John Lannan" anywhere within the same zip code, then kudos to you.

Otherwise, if I'm such an idiot, why don't you just delete the bookmark? And don't make me go look up the predictions track record of "anonymous."

Rob B said...

There's a reason that the closer role isn't a priority for shitty teams that can be explained by the simplest statistic of all: wins vs losses. If you aren't winning games, your closer doesn't play as much, and has less value than he would with the same ability on a team that wins 90 games.

Steven said...

How about if you just stop saving your best relief pitcher for one-inning outings when you're ahead in the 9th? Wouldn't that solve your problem?

Section 222 said...

This last exchange underlines a real brain freeze in MLB. Why do teams insist on having a "closer" who they pitch only when they are ahead (or tied at home) in the 9th inning? Is the pressure of that situation really so much greater that it's worth keeping your best reliever on the bench when the other team's best hitters are up with men on base in the 7th or 8th? With all the emphasis on Sabermetrics, hasn't someone been able to show that this is a stupid practice, not to mention that it elevates a bizarre and arbitrary statistic to a level that unnaturally inflates salaries for the annointed few relievers lucky enough to be considered closers?

Stephen, it sounds like you agree, so enlighten us on the history of this. I remember Elroy Face, who racked up alot of saves by pitching the last two or even three innings in the 60s.

Sam said...

Capps' splits are not as bad as you make them out to be.

Year xFIP vs. L/vs. R
2009 4.50/4.23
2008 3.96/3.95
2007 5.58/3.56
2006 3.39/4.25

2007 was pretty terrible, but other than that, he has been close to even. The funny thing is that the "bad" years there (2009 and 2007) are due to completely different reasons. In 2007, a 5.52 K/9 and 3.68 BB/9 vs. lefties led to the poor performance. In 2009, it was the 2.63 HR/9. His BB/9 was 2.30 against lefties, but I imagine that is because batters were jumping on the first good pitch they saw (and generally hitting a home run).