Did Mets err by picking Mike Pelfrey over Chris Capuano?

Following the 2011 season, the Mets had to make a decision whether to retain the services of two starting pitchers going forward – Chris Capuano and Mike Pelfrey. There were a bunch of factors that went into the decision, not the least of which was that Capuano was a free agent and Pelfrey was arbitration-eligible. This meant that Capuano had the leverage to seek a multi-year deal while Pelfrey could be given a one-year contract. The Mets opted to let Capuano walk and they tendered a contract to Pelfrey. But was it the right decision?

Let’s start with their respective contract details. Pelfrey and the Mets agreed on a contract to avoid arbitration and the former first-round pick will receive $5.675 million in 2012. Capuano signed a two-year deal with the Dodgers that was reported as a two-year, $10 million contract. Cot’s breaks down the signing as $3 million in 2012, $6 million in 2013, a mutual option for $8 million in 2014 and a host of innings-based incentives that could total an extra $1 million if he reaches them all in the next two seasons.

If Capuano pitches the same number of innings in 2012 that he did last year for the Mets, he will earn $3.225 million. But there’s the rub – how likely is it that Capuano will deliver 186 IP again? He made his major league debut in 2003 but has reached that mark just three times since then. Meanwhile, Pelfrey has surpassed that innings total in three of the last four years and the one time he didn’t, he logged 184.1 IP.

Durability edge to Pelfrey

Both pitchers have made 25 or more starts in a season four times. Here are those four seasons, ranked by fWAR in descending order of quality:

Capuano 3.9 1.8 1.7 1.6
Pelfrey 3.0 2.8 1.6 0.7

For both pitchers, their 2011 season was their lowest-rated one by fWAR. Capuano has been very consistent outside of 2006, when he posted a career-low in both home run rate and walks allowed. The BB/9 was especially an outlier, as he delivered a 1.91 mark, a full walk better than his career rate.

Pelfrey seems much more inconsistent but that’s due to fWAR using FIP as its main pitching calculation. If it went by xFIP, you would not see anywhere near the volatility, as Pelfrey’s mark in that category the past four years has been: 4.45, 4.47, 4.31 and 4.55 – which makes him one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball.

FIP and xFIP are calculated with strikeouts, walks and home runs, with the big difference being that FIP gives a pitcher his actual HR rate while xFIP normalizes the rate. Pelfrey’s K/BB has been extremely consistent – it’s his HR rate that fluctuates. He gives up fewer home runs than expected but needs a really good HR/FB rate to be successful. The two years where Pelfrey had the most success, where he went a combined 28-20 with a 3.69 ERA, he had HR/FB rates of 6.3 and 5.7 percent.

It’s not all about HR rate for Pelfrey, as his strand rate was 73.7 percent in 2010 and 74.3 in 2008. In his two down years, his strand rate was below 70 percent both years.

However, Capuano has been consistent in three of his four years and Pelfrey has been better than Capuano’s demonstrated level of performance twice and equal another time. It may be luck or good fortune that pushes Pelfrey ahead but I’d rather bank on Pelfrey putting up a sub-7.0 HR/FB rate than Capuano setting career lows in BB/9 and HR/FB.

Slight quality edge to Pelfrey

Pelfrey is five years younger while Capuano is a lefty. Ordinarily, teams might prefer a lefty but with Jonathon Niese and Johan Santana already in the rotation, do the Mets want to feature three southpaws in their starting five? While that may not make a difference, one thing that certainly does is that Capuano gives up more fly balls than Pelfrey.

With the Mets moving in the fences this year, more HR will be hit in Citi Field. Both Capuano and Pelfrey performed much better at Citi than on the road last year, but Capuano figures to be more affected by the new dimensions than Pelfrey. Capuano had a 1.81 HR/9 in road parks last year while Pelfrey had a 1.26 HR/9. That’s a difference of .55 HR/9, compared to a difference of .22 in home starts. The new dimensions should make Citi play like a more neutral park, meaning that .22 difference should move in the direction of the .55 difference in road parks.

So, Pelfrey is younger, more durable, has a slight edge in quality and is likely to be less affected by the new outfield dimensions in Citi Field. Capuano is lefty and will make significantly less than Pelfrey in 2012. But the latter edge is negated by the second year that comes on the Capuano contract. If Capuano bombs or reinjures himself, the Dodgers are on the hook for his 2013 salary. If Capuano repeats his 2011 season the next two years, the Dodgers get a bargain in 2012 and essentially pay market value in 2013.

The contract makes sense for the Dodgers because they should have new ownership in place by 2013 and should not have the monetary issues that current ownership has. It seems reasonable that Michael Moye, the agent for Capuano, approached the Mets about a similar-type deal but was rejected by Sandy Alderson. Whether due to age, injury, ballpark or payroll – the Mets decided they would prefer to pay close to market value on Pelfrey in 2012 to avoid a commitment in 2013.

It’s up for debate if that says more about Capuano or the Mets’ financial situation.

1 comment for “Did Mets err by picking Mike Pelfrey over Chris Capuano?

  1. METSTHEORY 22
    January 20, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Neither is a long term solution. As much as I dislike to way pelfrey pitches, keep him and hopefully you can trade him during year.

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