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Friday, December 2, 2011
Dodgy decision to sign Chris Capuano

By Christina Kahrl

Everybody loves a good comeback, and Chris Capuano’s certainly deserved all sorts of regard. A guy loses almost two and a half years from his career to elbow problems and then makes it all the way back, and honor is due. In his 2011 season with the Mets, he took the ball every fifth day and performed adequately as an innings-muncher of sorts. He was one of the scrapheap retreads who helped get the Mets through the season, not unlike R.A. Dickey, if a lot less effectively.

So on one level, you can feel great for Chris Capuano after the news broke that he’s getting a two-year, $10 million deal from the Los Angeles Dodgers. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not this is a good thing for the Dodgers, and things aren’t quite so ducky on that score.

Chris Capuano
Chris Capuano signed a two-year deal worth $10 million with the Dodgers.
First, comeback or no, his season with the Mets wasn’t very special. A metric like ERA+ isn’t perfect, but Capuano’s 82 is a nice starting point for noting this wasn’t a great year from a back-end starter coughing up 4.8 runs per nine innings. Then there’s the notion that he’s an innings-eater, born of his making 31 starts. He notched just 14 quality starts in his turns, not a good rate, even for a fourth or fifth starter.

Worse, that low tally suggests one of Capuano’s real problems: He wasn’t all that durable in his starts, getting clobbered for a .496 SLG and 17 home runs in the 395 PAs after his first 50 pitches. His OPS against hitters from individual at-bat to at-bat got significantly worse in-game: From a .650 OPS in the first at-bat to .746 the second time through the order to .937 the third time hitters got to take their cuts against him. After those first two times through an order, his bag of tricks wasn’t working as well, as batters hit .324 and slugged .580 in their third and fourth at-bats against Capuano.

He also wasn’t especially effective as the season wore on, giving up 5.4 RA/9 after the All-Star break. Then there’s the really bad news, which is that he owed much of his success to Citi Field, which is fairly remote from where he’ll be pitching in Chavez Ravine. On the road, he got hammered by all batters at a .291/.345/.538 clip, coughing up 17 home runs in 84 2/3 IP.

But against all that unhappiness on the performance front, Capuano has one thing going for him: He racked up strikeouts, racking batters up 21 percent of the time with a crafty lefty’s assortment, changing speeds and trying to pound the bottom of the strike zone to avoid cookies. The strikeouts help conjure up all sorts of statistical joy: A 4.04 FIP, 3.67 xFIP, and 3.60 SIERA.

Which is neat, and liable to encourage people to think that Capuano was just betrayed by ill fortune, and slow fielders, and maybe his ballparks and maybe a few black helicopters while we’re at it. You can see where this comes from, because rate metrics like xFIP run off aggregate numbers. Unfortunately, they’re blind to the fact of life that while Capuano’s effectiveness only goes so far into a ballgame. He might be effective once through the order, and more than a bit less so twice through the order. But a starting pitcher doesn’t give you six innings just going through the order twice in a game; he doesn’t even give you five innings all that often.

So when Capuano’s tasked with the basics of a starting pitcher’s job and has to see a big-league lineup a third time around, he gets lit up like its Christmas. And he gets hammered on the road. You can argue that he’d be better served to be hooked earlier and used with great care in any but the biggest ballparks, part of an adaptive pitcher usage pattern that says it’s OK if your start goes four innings and hits the showers. I just wouldn’t recommend holding your breath waiting for that day, and it certainly isn’t what the Dodgers are paying him $5 million per year to do.

You can wishcast that his issues with having hitters solve him goes away in Dodger Stadium. It might happen. And because Capuano has fought long and hard to get back, you can root for him. But I’d just check your expectations at the door, whether they’re fueled by sympathy or a few sabermetric stats, because the third time around, he’ll be breaking a few Dodger fans’ hearts.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.