Something different and important happened during Carter Capps’ most recent Cactus League outing on St. Patrick’s Day at Peoria Stadium.
Capps came in to pitch the seventh inning against the Texas Rangers. On paper, it was an ordinary 1-2-3 inning with Capps striking out the first two batters. Within those strikeouts was a sequence of pitches that revealed Capps’ growth from a guy known as a flamethrower who wants to be known as pitcher.
Capps made quick work of leadoff hitter Jeff Baker, pumping three fastballs by him for a strikeout – the slowest of which registered 95 mph on the radar gun.
Feeling the adrenaline that comes with a strikeout, Capps blew a 97 mph fastball by
Brandon Snyder to start the next count.
But what happened next was unexpected and critical for the development of the right-hander for the upcoming season.
Ahead in the count, Capps eschewed his fastball. Instead, he snapped off a perfect slider that Snyder could only wave at.
Up 0-2, it seemed likely Capps would throw a high-90s mph fastball right past Snyder. Nope, Capps threw another slider, burying it in the dirt trying to get Snyder to chase. It didn’t work, but Snyder was leaning.
Surely the next pitch would be a fastball. Capps would never throw three consecutive breaking pitches, not with his blazing fastball. But that’s what he did. The third slider cut off the plate outside. Again, Snyder was out on his front foot, clearly not expecting the off-speed pitch.
After three straight breaking balls, Capps cooly blew a 95 mph fastball right by Snyder for the strikeout.
Still, the message was delivered to opposing hitters – Carter Capps is no longer a one-pitch pitcher.
He tried to downplay his performance.
“I was just trying to work on it,” he said. “It felt good, and so I kept throwing (off-speed pitches).”
The fact that he’s trying to work on expanding his repertoire is important.
The slider hasn’t always felt good to Capps. He has struggled with command. And with those struggles came a loss of confidence in the pitch – a pitch that needs to be thrown with confidence.
Still, the thing he learned in his brief call-up to the Mariners late last season is that a slider is a pitch he needs to be successful.
“You’ve got to have another pitch to get guys out,” Capps said. “Guys in the big leagues are so good that they are going to hit your fastball in the end, it’s just matter of time.”
Capps appeared in 18 games last season, pitching 25 innings and posting a 3.96 earned-run average. He struck out 28 hitters and walked 11. And he did it by almost exclusively throwing fastballs.
According to Fangraphs and Pitch F/X data, 82.6 percent of Capps’ pitches last season were fastballs. Sure, his fastball averaged 97.8 mph, but it doesn’t matter in the big leagues. By the end of the season, hitters were cheating on the fastball and hitting it.
“The scouting reports are so advanced,” Capps said. “They know exactly what you have. They know what you can throw for a strike and what you can’t, and they take advantage of it.”
Capps isn’t the first young pitcher to have hitters catch up to his heat.
“He learned a great deal,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “The league showed him you need to use all of your pitches.”
Capps knows all the reasons why.
“If you can make your fastball look a little faster by throwing some breaking balls in there, you are only helping yourself out,” he said. “If you can throw it for a strike in fastball counts, you are going to so much tougher.”
The spring work has been beneficial so far, although dry air of Arizona doesn’t make it easy for gripping the ball and generating movement.
“It’s actually good because you have to stay on top of the ball to throw it,” he said of the conditions. “If you get a feel for it now, it will move more when you pitch in more humid places.”
Capps has had a feel for the pitch most of the spring.
“It’s pretty good,” he said. “I’m throwing it well. Hopefully, I can continue to do it. I’m really happy with it.
Capps is even working on his change-up, too.
“Some guys can get away with having just two pitches, but I feel like I might need two or three,” he said.
He just wants people to know he has more than one.
“Some people don’t even know if I have a breaking ball, they are only worried about the fastball,” he said. “There’s a lot more to pitching to than just fastballs and velocity.”