Following a 2012 season that saw a number of young players get extended auditions at the big league level, it seemed pretty certain that right-hander Carter Capps was a good bet to be an integral part of the bullpen for Seattle -- in 2013 and beyond. With only 18 appearances and 25 innings, it was hardly a thorough review, but in that introduction Capps established that he could throw strikes and that he could miss bats while keeping the ball in the ballpark.
The 6-foot-5 former catcher threw about 64% of his pitches for strikes and coerced 56 swings-and-misses in just 25 innings and 109 batters faced. That equated to 18.5% of his strikes and 11.9% of his total pitches being of the whiff variety; good to be firmly in the top 20% of all pitchers in MLB in 2012. With his big velocity -- the 2nd highest average fastball speed in baseball at 98.3 miles-per-hour -- and unorthodox delivery, Capps also induced opposing hitters to swing at pitches outside the zone at a 36.5% rate, almost 20% above the league average. Beyond the suppressed contact rates, batters also were simply not doing damage when they did put the ball in play against Capps: they managed just a 5.5% extra base hit rate with a .073 Isolated Power number, with Carter making it through the big league part of his season without allowing a home run. He had allowed only three home runs in his minor league career, too, so Capps' HR/9 in his pro career sat at 0.3 in 94 1/3 innings entering 2013. Clearly he wasn't only beating hitters with his fastball, but also with good location and pitch use that kept them guessing.
As the 34-45 Mariners are searching for answers to many questions at the big league level right now, one of the most troubling may be what has happened to Carter Capps?
Unfortunately for Seattle and Capps, the young righty has been forced into situations during his struggles where he has to pitch often and in big spots against tough hitters. With fellow fireballing right-hander Stephen Pryor on the disabled list since mid-April and closer Tom Wilhelmsen going through some struggles of his own, the club has been forced to turn to Capps, Oliver Perez and Yoervis Medina in late and close situations probably more than it had drawn up before the year started.
The results for Capps haven't been good. Out of 263 pitchers across both leagues that have thrown 30 or more innings in 2013, Capps has the following ranks in some key statistical categories: 253rd in ERA (5.97), 240th in FIP (5.07), 262nd in BABIP (.381), 255th in H/9 (11.65), 252nd in oAVG (.308), 262nd in HR/9 (2.56), 255th in HR/FB% (20.5%), 248th in FB% (47.8) and 252nd in GB% (29.3%).
Those last four numbers are the root of the problem for Capps. As I stated above, Capps didn't allow a home run in the big leagues last year and had allowed just three in his 94 1/3 pro innings entering 2013, but this season he has allowed nine home runs -- tied for the 2nd highest number out of all relievers in baseball. That means that his ISO and XBH% have climbed from .073 to .265 and from 5.5% to 12.0% respectively from 2012.
How has that drastic shift happened? Isn't his stuff still good? His velocity has tailed off a bit -- down to 95.4 mph, 10th in MLB. That isn't the problem in and of itself, though. The biggest issue is that Capps isn't getting hitters to chase anymore.
In 2012, hitters chased pitches outside the zone (O-Swing% on Fangraphs) at a 36.5% rate, among the top-5% in the majors, against Carter. This season that is down to 29.2% for Capps, a number that is more than 3% below the major league average.
Pitchers succeed based on a number of factors including velocity, movement and location of their pitches. Part of what makes location an effective weapon is changing the eye level of hitters. With his huge velocity, unique delivery and arm angle and the ability to hide the ball in that delivery, Capps is a pitcher who can and should pitch up in the zone. Check the location/whiff chart below, with 2012 first and 2013 following:
As you can see, he is still working up in the zone, but while he is getting more swinging strikes on those pitches at or above the mid-point of the strike zone here in 2013 (18.6% to 16.4% in 2012), he is throwing up there less often; 61.9% of his pitches in 2012 and just 53.7% in 2013 fit the criteria.
It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that a pitcher who is struggling with allowing home runs needs to pitch up in the zone more, but I think that is the case with Capps. Again, his delivery and his velocity lend themselves to getting swinging strikes. And the type of stuff that he has -- in particular the type of fastball that he has -- are effective up in, and even up out of, the zone.
Capps could be best served by returning to Tacoma to get some more work on refining his secondary offerings, true. But he could also make an improvement in his results right now if he were to pitch up in the zone more often. Pitching up in the zone, changing the eye-level of hitters, not only helps his fastball but his breaking ball, too. The break becomes a little more prominent if it is happening on a different plane than the fastball. He gets back to that formula, more chases would happen.
Carter Capps is going to be a very good reliever for the Mariners. I'm confident in that fact. His stuff is good, his command is good and he seems to have great makeup to go with it. He is just 22 years old and in the infancy of his big league career and there are struggles for many young arms. He needs a more consistent breaking ball and probably a more usable third pitch if we're talking best-case-scenarios. But I believe that a lot could be accomplished in the form of immediate results if Capps returned to what worked for him last year -- working with his fastball up in the zone.
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