Here's a Thought: Matt Capps—A Bright Spot For The Washington Nationals

Nathaniel StoltzSenior Analyst IJanuary 1, 2010

ST. LOUIS - APRIL 6:  Matt Capps #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during Opening Day on April 6, 2009 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Pirates beat the Cardinals 6-4. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

My writing has recently been somewhat derogatory toward the Nationals pitching staff.

In the past week, I pointed out how lefty reliever Sean Burnett got far more defensive support than anyone in baseball in 2009 , and is thus likely to regress in 2010, and I also took a quick sideswipe at the Jason Marquis signing when discussing the Giants overpaying for Mark DeRosa .

But the news isn't all bad for Mike Rizzo and the Nationals, as they signed former Pittsburgh closer Matt Capps recently.

Capps, an established 3-ERA pitcher, posted a whopping 5.80 mark last year, which led to the Pirates non-tendering him.

However, was there really that much difference between Capps' 2008 and his 2009?

He actually racked up strikeouts at a higher rate in 2009 (7.62 K/9, up from 6.52 in 2008). 

His walks increased (2.82 BB/9, up from a stunningly low .84 the year before), but he threw a much higher percentage of first-pitch strikes (66.9 percent to 59.7 percent) and threw a similar amount of pitches in the strike zone (55.3 percent, down from 56.6 percent). He even got batters to chase more of his out-of-the-zone pitches (29.7 percent to 25.3 percent), which negates the small pitches-in-the-zone difference.

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So Capps got more strikeouts and his control didn't deteriorate.

He allowed about twice as many homers in 2009 as he did in 2008 (1.66 HR/9 compared to .84 in 2008), but that looks to be entirely a function of HR/FB luck (13.5 percent in 2009, 6.8 percent in 2008). Sure, that 2008 figure looks a bit lucky, but if Capps sticks to his career average of 8.8 percent HR/FB in 2010, he'll have about an average rate of 1 HR/9 IP.

After a big spike in line drives allowed (23 percent) in 2008, Capps reverted back to his usual slightly-above-average form in that stat in 2009, with an 18.7 percent liner rate. He also became more of a groundball pitcher (40.7 percent) after being an extreme flyballer in 2008 (31.1 percent).

Other than the home run overcorrection, there really wasn't much that Matt Capps did worse in 2009 than 2008. 

As you might expect, the culprit for the poor ERA is a .370 BABIP that is way out of line given the normal liner rate. Capps' xBABIP stands at .304 for 2009.

True ERA has his 2009 performance at 4.28, which is a big step up from the 5.80 ERA he posted. xFIP concurs, giving Capps a 4.37 mark.

I'd adjust those even lower because of Capps' improvement in first-pitch strikes and getting batters to chase in 2009. I think he probably deserved an ERA around 3.50.

Given that he's only 26 and should have a better defense behind him in Washington, as well as a friendlier home park, I wouldn't be shocked if Capps becomes a dominant 3.00-ERA reliever again. For $3.5 million dollars, that's a bargain.

It's not all bad news for the Nationals.

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