Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Matt Capps and long save opportunities

Matt Capps' ERA is now 5.09 — and he's the most
reliable man in the Twins bullpen right now.
I was going to title this "The overworked Matt Capps," but I'm not casting a judgment on how he's been used so much as making observations about how he's been used.

What is obvious: Ron Gardenhire is using Capps differently than he has ever used his closer in the past. That is (my opinion) more a symptom of the problem than a cause — Gardenhire is reluctant to trust his other relievers with leads — but it's not working.

Capps opened the 2011 season as the primary set-up man to Joe Nathan and inherited the closer's mantle in mid April after Nathan flopped in consecutive save opportunities. Through that month, Gardenhire followed his usual protocol of bringing the closer, whichever man held the job,in at the start of the ninth inning -- three-out save opportunities.

That changed this month. Capps has been brought in four times in May in "long" save opportunities — before the ninth inning, seeking to get at least four outs. He converted the first of those four, blew the next three.

He had just one long save opp in his partial 2010 season with the Twins. His predecessor as closer in 2010, Jon Rauch, was never bought in for a save opp earlier than the ninth inning.

Nathan, the closer for several seasons before his elbow injury, had three long save chances in 2009 and two each in 2008, 2007 and 2006.

In the five previous seasons, Gardenhire's closers averaged two long save opps a year. He has doubled that this month alone.

Again: I'm not criticizing Gardenhire here. Other than Glen Perkins (now on the disabled list), nobody in his bullpen has emerged as a credible late-inning option. Gardenhire is using his best reliever earlier than he would prefer in an effort to win winnable games, and, at least in theory, I can't argue with that approach.

I do think that (a) these longer outings aren't good for Capps, and (b) they aren't protecting the leads.

And (c) it's time to try something else in the eighth inning. Who that might be ... that's the rub.

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