Frustrated with Matt Capps? You should be

Nicholas MinnixContributor IAugust 1, 2009

I evaluated Matt Capps‘ 2009 struggles in the July 30 edition of KFFL.com’s Fantasy Baseball Closer Hot Seat, but I wasn’t finished. The righty is out of character, and I believe it traces back to some changes he incorporated this past spring.

In a Wednesday night battle that was scoreless through nine stages, Capps entered the bottom of the 10th against the San Francisco Giants and allowed a leadoff single to left fielder Eugenio Velez. The speedster advanced on a sac bunt and later scored on a base hit to right. Loser, Capps. He fell to 2-6, with 20 saves in 22 chances; he has a 6.15 ERA and a 1.78 WHIP in 33 2/3 innings.

Such an outing underscores the frustration fantasy owners have felt while owning Capps this year. It has been suggested that this is just normalization for an average fella who had exceeded the standards of a Bucs closer in the past two seasons.

That’s an unfair assessment. Although he missed much of the second half of 2008 with a shoulder injury, there was plenty of reason to believe he was past it. And Capps is, at his core, a very good pitcher. He has just forgotten what made him one.

This year the right-hander, 25, hit Spring Training a few pounds lighter and, apparently, stronger, which he believed resulted in increased velocity on his fastball. Although observers supposed the difference was minimal this spring, depending on the metrics you cite, the gun reading on his average heater is the highest it has ever been.

Capps believed he was throwing harder then, and he’s rearing back now. Unfortunately, it appears that whatever marginal boost he has gained on his hummer has been offset by (1) exponential growth on the rate of his changeup and (2) a monumental sacrifice of command.

matt-capps-391x213-20090731

Capps doesn't have far to look to find the reason for his mishaps

The first point is likely in an effort to mimic his fastball delivery and maintain deception. Sorry to say that it has also caused the gap between his smoke and change to narrow substantially. If it looks the same and feels the same, it’s not going to fool anyone.

The second point is probably the result of excessive exertion. In May, Capps returned to action after a short absence because of elbow pain. Shortly after, pitching coach Joe Kerrigan asserted that the stopper was expending too much energy in his delivery and had brought about exaggerated rotation. The pair focused on correcting it, but apparently, they have more work to do.

This Georgia peach isn’t hitting the strike zone often enough. This year, 66 percent of his offerings have been strikes; 2008 (68 percent), 2007 (72 percent) and 2006 (70 percent) were better. His wildness is evident in his abnormally high rate of pitches per plate appearance (3.87) and inning pitched (18.1).

Capps’s calling card has always been his phenomenal control. He has a career BB/9 of 1.72. Last season he walked a measly five hitters in 53 2/3 innings. This year, though, he has issued 4.01 free passes per nine. His K/9 hasn’t jumped significantly (7.22 in 2009; 6.78 lifetime) despite the perceived enhancement to his smoke, either.

As you might suspect, his problems began in the exhibition season; after a few outstanding appearances, Capps fell apart. All told, in 11 1/3 stanzas, he gave up 14 hits (one homer), nine walks and eight earned runs. He fanned a pretty 13, but the cost was too high. His spring game logs forecasted the troubles that lay ahead: Periodic brilliance (1.42 ERA in April, 2.45 ERA in June) and sporadic squalor (9.64 ERA in May, 11.57 ERA in July).

The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder is making myriad mistakes, and when you make mistakes, leave pitches up, major league hitters make you pay. He has a 13.7 homers-per-flyball percentage, about five points above his career norm. He has dished up 1.87 getty-goners per nine. Despite a career-low line-drive rate against (15.0 percent), his opponents’ average (.322) and average on balls in play (.359) are lifetime worsts.

A couple of weeks ago, Capps spent a pair of afternoons learning a new grip for his slider. Kerrigan thought improvement in that offering would upgrade his efficiency against left-handed hitters. The righty was pleased with the outcome, but it hasn’t made much of a difference since.

Capps has been sparkling at times. When you throw hard, you don’t always lose. Ask the Washington NationalsMike MacDougal. The Steel City’s steely-eyed closer isn’t in any danger of losing his job; the ‘Burgh sees Capps as its premier punctuator for at least the next few years. He might do himself and his organization a favor and dial it back a bit, though.

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