Carter Capps made his Major League Baseball debut just four days before his 22nd birthday, on August 3, 2012. For most players that young, you might assume that he was a highly-regarded draft pick out of high school, and worked his way up through the minors over the course of three or four seasons. However, quite the opposite was true – coming out of North Lenoir High School in LaGrange, North Carolina, Capps didn’t even get drafted, instead continuing his education at NCAA Division II Mount Olive College in Mount Olive, North Carolina. While Mount Olive has a history of draft success in terms of D-II schools, it’s not often that D-II players get drafted highly, and many never make it to the big leagues. However, the Seattle Mariners liked what they saw out of Capps at Mount Olive, and in 2011 chose him in the 3rd round of the June Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
Capps’ professional career began with the Clinton Lumber Kings of the Single-A Midwest League, starting four games and accumulating 18.0 innings pitched to the tune of an unimpressive 6.00 ERA. However, the Mariners still liked what they saw out of Capps, and he began 2012 in Double-A – however, he was moved into a bullpen role. After posting an impressive 1.24 ERA in 50.0 innings with the Jackson Generals of the Southern League, he appeared in just one Triple-A game in 2012 before graduating to the majors and making his debut. His first pitch as a Mariner, against the Yankees’ veteran catcher Russell Martin, was a 100 MPH heater.
After bouncing around between Triple-A and the majors in 2013, 2014, and 2015 as well as being traded to the Miami Marlins for Logan Morrison in December 2013, Capps is still bringing the heat out of the bullpen. Here’s a look at a 98 MPH fastball Capps delivered to San Diego’s Will Venable on August 2 of this past season.
What was that? Did he just trip? Let’s look at another pitch, this time a 96 MPH fastball that Venable bunted foul two pitches later.
Nope, that was definitely on purpose. What you’re seeing is Capps performing a “hop-step” delivery, in which his back foot intentionally disengages the rubber before Capps’ arm begins its path towards home plate. Capps does this on every pitch he throws, a mechanical oddity that he began developing after the 2014 season.
Capps (expectedly) ran into some confusion in the beginning of 2015, with some fans, coaches, and even one Triple-A umpire deeming Capps’ delivery illegal. Rule 2.00 of the official MLB rulebook states that:
“An ILLEGAL PITCH is (1) a pitch delivered to the batter when the pitcher does not have his pivot foot in contact with the pitcher’s plate.”
This phrasing makes it seem like Capps’ delivery is surely illegal. However, every pitcher in the world releases their back foot from the rubber before releasing the baseball, but usually it’s swung up and to their side instead of slid forward as Capps does. Therefore, Capps’ delivery is as legal as anyone else’s, by way of a technicality. Separately in the rulebook, Rule 8.01 (a) states that in the “windup position”:
“The pitcher shall stand facing the batter, his pivot foot in contact with the pitcher’s plate and the other foot free. From this position any natural movement associated with his delivery of the ball to the batter commits him to the pitch without interruption or alteration. He shall not raise either foot from the ground, except that in his actual delivery of the ball to the batter, he may take one step backward, and one step forward with his free foot.”
This would make it seem that, so long as Capps’ “hop-step” is part of a “natural movement” in his delivery and that his rear foot doesn’t come too far off the ground, Capps isn’t breaking this rule, either. Here’s a close-up, slow-motion look at Capps’ back foot from the side, courtesy of MLB:
As a matter of fact, another hard-throwing MLB reliever has been using the same move for years. Jordan Walden, currently of the St. Louis Cardinals, has been using a slightly-less-exaggerated version of the “hop-step” since at least 2011, seen here from his stint with the Los Angeles Angels:
So, Capps is not one-of-a-kind, but still quite unusual. While Walden’s been pretty good in his career, he’s struggled with his control, walking nearly 4.0 batters per nine innings over his career, pitching to the tune of an exact 3.00 ERA in six MLB seasons from 2010-2015. It’s no surprise that a guy who literally jumps off the rubber could have command issues, but so far Capps has seemed to avoid these problems. In his four major league seasons, Capps has posted BB/9 numbers of 4.0, 3.5, 2.2, and 2.0 – quite good by hard-throwing-reliever standards, and even better by guy-who-jumps-off-mound standards. Interestingly enough, Capps’ walk rate was actually worse when he didn’t have such an exaggerated delivery! And yes, he’s still throwing heat, averaging an even 98.0 MPH on his fastball in 2015 according to PITCHf/x, the highest mark of his young career.
In summary, Capps throws very weird, very hard, and with pretty good control. In fact, Capps throws a pretty nasty slider too. First, he strikes out Matt Duffy “swinging”:
Then he gets Rafael Ynoa, swinging… more:
If the story ended there, Capps would certainly be an interesting pitcher, but with the inception of MLB Statcast in 2015, we learned a little bit more about just how nasty Carter Capps is. Statcast made the introduction of a new metric called “perceived velocity”, which tells us how fast a pitch seems to be coming at the batter, based on how close to the plate a pitcher releases the ball (which is referred to as “extension”). Since Capps gains an extra foot-plus with his hop-step, his average extension is by far the best in the majors at 8.3 feet from the rubber. This means that Capps releases the ball just 52 feet and change away from the batter – incredibly close, considering that most of his pitches are clocking in in the high 90s. For reference, the MLB average pitcher had an extension of less than 6.2 feet, New York Mets starter Noah Syndergaard, who is 6’6″, averaged an extension of 7.0 feet. MLB true velocity leader Aroldis Chapman’s extension was a mere 6.8 feet, and the other hop-stepper Walden averaged 7.6 feet. Capps’ exceptional velocity combined with his other-worldly extension numbers mean that his average fastball was perceived to be 101.7 MPH in 2015 – nearly a full tick higher than the next-highest mark of 100.8, set by Chapman. Here’s a visual on the top-20 pitches in the MLB this past season, ranked by perceived velocity, with average true velocity and extension as well.
Capps’ fastball is all the way to the left, and it’s absurd how much of an outlier his fastball really is.
So, after an injury-shortened 2015 campaign (Capps last pitched on August 2 after experiencing soreness in his throwing elbow) in which Capps awed fans, teammates and coaches alike en route to a 1.16 ERA, 1.10 FIP, 0.806 WHIP and 56:7 K:BB ratio in 31.0 innings, what can we expect out of the young flamethrower in his upcoming age-25 season?
For starters, we can hope to finally see a full-length, healthy season from Capps, whose career-high innings pitched came in 2013 with the Mariners, when he racked up 59.0 IP in 53 games but posted a disappointing 5.49 ERA and 4.73 FIP. However, Capps is obviously a different pitcher than he was back then, so hopefully the numbers will be a lot better.
In terms of his role on the club, Marlins executive Michael Hill noted that he hoped for an open competition for the club’s closer role in the spring of 2016, according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. The incumbent A.J. Ramos was quite good in 2015, posting a 2.30 ERA and 3.01 FIP with 32 saves over 70.1 IP for Miami. This would make it seem that Capps will have to clearly outshine Ramos throughout the spring, so don’t expect him to take over the role unless that happens. There’s always the possibility that Ramos or Capps is traded to a team in need of a closer, but both hit arbitration for the first time after 2016. That means that they aren’t currently eligible for free agency until after the 2019 season. One would assume that the Marlins would like to maintain that strong back end of the bullpen for as long as they can, but anything goes as long as Jeffrey Loria is at the helm.
Lastly, what can we expect to see from Capps in terms of production? Well, that is far more difficult to predict. Capps’ FIP, xFIP, and SIERA all back up his strong ERA in 2015, which is an encouraging sign. Additionally, Capps’ BABIP against was much higher than the league average in 2015 at .327, which indicates it could come down more. However, because Capps didn’t allow very many balls in play, it’s tough to tell. Capps also allowed lots of hard-hit balls, likely due to the fact that he throws so hard, so that inflates his BABIP a bit. Because of his style of pitching, Capps will have to prove that he can continue to consistently miss bats and get strikeouts without walking too many batters. For what it’s worth, FanGraphs’ Steamer projection system predicts Capps to toss 65.0 innings to the tune of a 2.51 ERA and 2.45 FIP, as well as a 12.33 K and 3.26 BB percentages. So, Steamer backs up the idea that it’s likely Capps will regress a bit statistically in 2016, but he’ll surely be one of the most entertaining pitchers to watch this season.
Good work Matt.