The famous saying is that the only two things that are certain in life are death and taxes. One thing in baseball that approaches this level of certainty is if you have a pitcher capable of being an effective starter, you are insane if you pitch him out of the bullpen instead. I’m reminded of this axiom as people call for Chris Capuano to be a reliever rather than a starter in 2011.
Why is it insane for a pitcher to be used as a reliever if he can be a competent starter? It is extremely difficult for a pitcher to be more valuable in 75 IP than he can be in 175 IP, no matter how high leverage those 75 innings are. Let’s look at the 2010 Mets. Here are the fWAR for the four starters who had at least 100 IP and the top members of the bullpen:
Santana – 3.5
Pelfrey – 2.9
Dickey – 2.9
Niese – 1.9
Rodriguez – 1.4
Takahashi – 1.3
Feliciano – 0.8
Parnell – 0.7
Hisanori Takahashi’s numbers are from his relief appearances only. Those might lead one to believe that an effective reliever over an entire season can be more valuable. Last year the best RP in the majors by this metric was Carlos Marmol, who had a 3.1 fWAR. Compare that to the top starters – there were 46 starters with a fWAR greater than that last season.
Should the Cubs use Marmol as a starter? It is unclear if he has the stamina to go six or more innings on a regular basis in 2011. He has not pitched more than 100 innings since 2005 and at this point in his career it is questionable if he could handle a starter’s workload.
Which brings us to Capuano. Terry Collins is on record as saying that Capuano needs to prove he is healthy before he is officially in the running for a rotation slot. That seems innocent enough, especially given that Capuano has pitched all of 66 innings in the majors the past three seasons. I do find it curious that the same logic is not applied to Chris Young, who has pitched 96 innings the past two seasons and only 20 of those last year.
There seems to be two somewhat logical explanations for placing higher barriers of entry to a rotation slot for Capuano than Young. First, Capuano has 23 relief appearances in the majors to his credit, including 15 last season. Young has none. More importantly, Capuano is a lefty and he could fill the void created by the departure of Pedro Feliciano.
Another factor often mentioned is that Capuano can get ground balls. Since ground balls are good, why you would want the guy who can induce ground balls to have fewer chances to do so does not make any sense to me, so it does not raise to the level of “somewhat logical.”
Last year with the Brewers, Capuano made nine starts. He got knocked around in two of his first three starts, which were not consecutive. But once he got on a regular rotation, Capuano was very effective. Here are his numbers in September, when he was exclusively a starter and did not have his turn skipped:
6 G, 34 IP, 31 H, 11 ER, 11 R, 10 BB, 21 Ks, 4 HR, 2.91 ERA
He went six or more innings in four of his six games in this stretch. He seemed capable of carrying a starter’s workload in September of last year. Unless there is an undisclosed arm injury, why assume that he is unable of doing the same after an offseason of rest and more time removed from his surgery? And I would like to think that Sandy Alderson did his due diligence and that Capuano has no lingering arm issues.
And who would the Mets use as a starter if Capuano opens the year in the bullpen? Dillon Gee is the pitcher most often mentioned. Gee came up and did a very nice job for the Mets last September. In five games he was 2-2 with a 2.18 ERA.
But Gee’s results with the Mets were more due to luck than good pitching. He posted that line after Triple-A batters knocked him around to a 4.96 ERA in 161.1 IP. In the majors, his ERA was due to the fact that he had an 80.7 strand rate (average is around 70%), a .225 BABIP (average around .300) and a HR/FB rate of 4.7 (average around 11%). If we look at the ERA estimators, Gee had a 4.20 FIP and a 5.19 xFIP last year.
Realistically, Gee was much closer to a 5.00 ERA pitcher last year than a 2.00 ERA during his time in the majors. If he pitches substantial innings for the Mets in 2011, no one should be surprised when his ERA is near 5 and not the sparkling rate it was in 2010.
To be fair, Capuano’s numbers in September were misleading, too. His FIP for the month was 4.26 and his xFIP was 4.49 – both worse than his actual ERA.
So, assuming both Capuano and Gee are healthy and ready to go – why prefer one over the other? There are several reasons. First, Capuano has a major league track record while Gee does not. Capuano has made 125 starts in the majors compared to five for Gee. And Capuano came back last year and put up peripherals right in line with what he’s done previously in the majors. Here are his lifetime marks and 2010 rates for three main categories
In his time in the majors last year, Capuano was essentially the same pitcher he has always been, the same pitcher who was able to put up an 18-win season in 2005.
Meanwhile, Gee struggled with his peripherals in the majors. Gee generally had very strong K and BB numbers in the minors but in the majors he had a 4.64 K/9 and a 4.09 BB/9. It’s hard to thrive in the majors with a BB rate that high, especially without a dominating K rate. Gee certainly can improve upon both of those numbers, but he simply is not going to be the dominating strikeout pitcher he was in the minors.
Gee has a deep repertoire but he is not an overpowering pitcher. I could see him adding a full strikeout to his 2010 numbers but I believe it is highly unlikely he could top a 6.0 K/9 in the majors. Without a blazing fastball or any other pitch that generates big numbers of swings and misses, he is not going to match his 9.20 K/9 that he had in Buffalo last year.
Finally, Capuano should see a boost in his numbers moving to Citi Field. Miller Park was the sixth-best HR park in the majors last year, according to the ESPN Park Factors, while Citi Field ranked 27th. Capuano had a 1.4 HR/9 in home games last year and a 0.9 mark in road games. He had a 4.10 ERA at home and a 3.77 mark on the road. Capuano has pitched in hitter-friendly parks in Arizona and Milwaukee throughout his career and should benefit from being in a pitcher’s park for the first time.
Ultimately, Capuano has better stuff and a better track record than Gee and that is why I want to see him in the rotation. However, no one knows how many innings Capuano and Young are going to be able to contribute for the Mets in 2011. I expect that Gee will still get a chance to make numerous starts for the Mets, even if he opens the year in the bullpen or in Triple-A.
All teams need more than five starters and Gee is a very nice hurler to have in the 6-10 group of pitchers for a major league team. There is no doubt that he is an asset to the club and a feather in the cap of the scouting department which made him a 21st-round pick in the 2007 Draft.
But Capuano is a better pitcher. And if the Mets take a better pitcher and put him in the bullpen, that’s a mistake I would not anticipate from the new front office. I look forward to seeing Capuano start games for the Mets in April this season.