A year ago at this time, Carter Capps and Steven Pryor weren’t even mentioned in the conversation about competition for spots in the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen.
Capps had never pitched above Class A, and Pryor had just 17 appearances in Double-A Jackson.
But by the end of last season, both flame-throwing right-handers were solid contributors for the Mariners in the bullpen, and they seem to be headed for prominent roles there again in the 2013 season.
So, who could be this season’s Capps or Pryor?
The smart money should be on Carson Smith, a hard-throwing kid from windy west Texas with a slightly odd side-arm delivery. He did what many pitchers have struggled to do over the years – pitch well in the hitter-friendly Class A California League.
Last season, Smith, who was taken in the eighth round of the 2011 draft out of Texas State University, posted a 5-1 record with a 2.90 earned-run average and 15 saves in 49 relief appearances for the High Desert Mavericks. In 60 innings, he had 72 strikeouts.
“I was getting acclimated to the bullpen,” said Smith, who was 9-3 with a 1.99 ERA as a starter in his last season at Texas State. “I thought I did all right. I had a rocky start, but I got more comfortable as the season went on.”
In the end, Smith’s numbers were solid. But they didn’t show how dominant he was in the second half of the season.
He was at times unhittable after taking over the closer role on June 15, going 14-for-15 in save opportunities in his final 28 appearances. In those 28 games, he gave up two earned runs in 332/3 innings for a 0.54 ERA. In his last 19 innings, he didn’t allow an earned run.
He accomplished that impressive run with a delivery that is different from just about every pitcher in the organization. It’s not as pronounced as a submarine delivery, but it’s not close to a normal motion either.
Here’s some more video from the baseball site Bullpen Banter
“It’s very abnormal,” Smith said. “People say it’s quirky.”
Some use other words to describe it.
“He’s got a really weird arm angle,” said catcher John Hicks, who caught him last year. “He kind of slings it.”
Said pitching coach Carl Willis: “He’s got a little funk to him that you don’t see as often from a right-hander.”
Smith can only shrug at the descriptions.
“It’s kind of funky,” he said. “But it’s what comes natural to me.”
People tried to change Smith as he was growing up in Midland, Texas. Then at Grayson County Junior College, he was asked to throw more overhand.
“It didn’t work out so well,” he said
After transferring to Texas State, Smith first was throwing from various arm slots before settling on one about in the middle. And with that side-arm slot, the consistency followed along with some movement.
Smith’s fastball, which was clocked at 92 mph on Saturday and touched 95 last season, generates tremendous sinking movement and bores down and in on right-handed hitters. He also throws an exploding slider that has been rated as the best in the organization.
“I’ve always been fond of my breaking ball,” Smith, who threw one scoreless inning and struck out one in the Mariners’ 8-6 win over San Diego on Saturday. “I’ve been throwing it since I was 10 years old. Over time, I got consistent with it. It’s pretty sharp right now.”
The guy who caught him most of last year, and on Saturday, knows all about Smith’s repertoire.
“He’s got really great stuff,” Hicks said. “People don’t realize he has pretty good change-up, too. When he has the grip right and slows it down a little bit, it’s a low to mid-80s change-up that drops off the table.”
So will Smith be the next reliever to make the jump to the big leagues? He will likely start this season with Double A Jackson – the same place where Capps and Pryor started last season.
“It’s pretty far down the road to look at that,” he said. “But it’s good to know the Mariners will move guys up like that. They had good seasons last year. I’d like to follow in their footsteps.”
He impressed the right person on Saturday.
“He’s deceptive,” manager Eric Wedge said. “He widens the plate. He has that power sinker and the power slider too. When you can do that, particularly against right-handers, you are going to be very effective.”