The Twins’ 9-7 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday locked up a second consecutive series victory at home. Along the way, the Twins benefitted from homers by a 40 year old future Hall of Famer (Jim Thome) and a 25 year old rookie (Rene Tosoni). But the big story of the day came out of the team’s beleagured bullpen. Glen Perkins bailed out closer Matt Capps, perhaps saving him from yet another embarassing blown save.
Though the words have not been publicly spoken yet (to my knowledge at least), I’m sure many Twins fans and media types are wondering if there might be a closer controversy in Minnesota. And if the controversy has not erupted yet, I hope I can help create it!
After surrendering four runs Saturday night, Capps came out to pitch the ninth on Sunday. The Twins had a two run lead, and it looked like a perfect opportunity for Capps to redeem himself and prove that his Saturday meltdown was a fluke. Instead, Capps reminded 41,195 Target Field fans of how he lost the night before. With one out, Capps gave up back-to-back singles, putting the tying run aboard for supersta left-handed slugger Prince Fielder. Instead of letting his closer work out of the jam he created, manager Ron Gardenhire yanked Capps and brought in the lefty Perkins. Perkins promptly squashed the Brewer threat, whiffing Fielder and Casey McGehee to pick up his first Major League save.
Capps is a talented relief pitcher, but he has been marginal as a closer this year. His ERA is an ugly 4.63, and though ERA is not necessarily the best measure of a reliever’s effectiveness, it shows that he has allowed more runs than he should. More alarming is the fact that he has blown nearly a third of his save chances – 6 out of 19. He has not allowed a lot of base runners (35 hits and only four walks in 35 innings pitched), but it seems that the hits he does allow come in bunches, leading to big innings. In those situations, a strikeout is a pitcher’s best friend. Capps has struck out only 21 batters in those 35 innings, a very low rate for a closer.
Meanwhile, Perkins has been nothing but dazzling on the mound this season. After moving to the bullpen, the lefty has revealed a new dimension to his game, tossing fastballs that reach up to 97 mph on the radar gun. He has a 1.80 ERA in 30 innings. Though he has walked more batters (11) than Capps, he has also benefitted from some key strikeouts to get out of jams. Perkins has 32 Ks this year.
Perkins’ increased fastball velocity has turned some heads, but that isn’t the whole story of his improvement. According to Fangraphs, Perkins has benefitted from the better fastball. It has led to a pitch value of 0.8 this year, as opposed to -3.6 last year. In other words, his fastball has actually saved him nearly a run instead of costing him and the Twins nearly four runs. But the even bigger improvement is in his slider. After a pitch value of -1.0 last year, the slider has a total of 6.4 this year. He is using the powerful fastball to put hitters behind in the count and then unleashing the slider to make them swing and miss for strike three.
To be fair, a single save does not qualify any pitcher to be a closer. But Perkins has been lights out all season long. And if he keeps pitching as well as he has been, the Twins need to consider using him in the closer slot. Capps is a valuable part of the bullpen, but he might be better suited to a short relief role. Joe Nathan has shown improvement, but he is thriving as an 8th inning setup man, and the Twins should continue to use him in that role for the near future. That leaves Perkins as the best closer on the team.
Not only would that move bolster the back of the bullpen, it could potentially help the front end, too. Chuck James has been dominant at Rochester this season, and he pitched well in his short stint with the Twins in early June. But he was sent back to the minors when Jose Mijares returned from injury because the team already had Perkins and Phil Dumatrat as left-handed specialists. With Perkins as a closer, however, Capps would become another right handed short relief option, freeing a space for another lefty that James could fill.
This move wouldn’t solve all of the Twins bullpen problems, but it could be a giant step in the right direction for a troubled unit.