Carter Capps’ Delivery Is New, Still Basically Against the Rules

Major League Baseball would never root for its own players to be injured, but sometimes the timing of certain injuries can be convenient. We spent a chunk of 2015 talking about whether Carter Capps‘ throwing motion should be allowed. Parallels were drawn to Jordan Walden, who has his own unorthodox delivery. Nothing was approaching the level of a crisis, but Capps was drawing a lot of attention, and he was dominating all the while. Then he got hurt, and he didn’t pitch in 2016. Walden also didn’t pitch in 2016. Baseball didn’t have to deal with anything, here, because nothing was happening. The deliveries were out of sight and out of mind.

Walden is still working his way back. There’s a chance he might never return to the majors. But, Capps? Capps has recovered from his elbow surgery. He’s been throwing in Padres camp, and based on early looks, he has made a mechanical change. Yet it still seems to be against the rules. Once more, this could turn into an issue.

Dennis Lin tweeted out the first clip I saw. Here’s Capps at full speed:

The Padres’ official Twitter account helpfully slowed everything down.

At this point it’s worth re-visiting what Capps looked like the last time he was healthy.

Do you see the change? Capps generated headlines because of his hop. When he was pitching with the Marlins, he would essentially leap forward from the rubber. That’s what put his delivery in the gray area. Now there’s a new twist. Capps no longer hops once, but twice. He ends up with basically the same extension as before, but the initial hop is smaller. He disengages the rubber, then he disengages the dirt. Maybe this is supposed to give Capps better body control. Maybe this is supposed to help him stay healthier. Maybe this is just to make his delivery look a little more subtle.

But based on MLB’s own interpretation of its own rules, this shouldn’t be allowed. From April 2015:

The next day, the Marlins contacted Major League Baseball seeking clarification on what Capps, who has 88 games of big league experience, was doing wrong.

“They just said they wanted me to make sure I dragged my foot and not get too elevated in the air, and make sure it’s more on a lateral plane,” Capps said. “As long as I do that, they have no problem with it. But it was very strange.”

More, from that July:

The issue is not leaping forward from the rubber but maintain contact with the ground with the toe of his right [back] foot. If any pitcher maintains contact, no matter how light, then it is legal.

“They sent to me the same heads up to make sure Carter has a drag line, which he does,” Jennings told “It was a light drag line. Earlier, it was a little bit heavier. I know someone sent me some video. I think it was NESN. But they really focused on his foot. You can see it’s a light line, and that’s all he has to do, make sure there’s a drag line. We’ve been in compliance with MLB and the umpires. And the umpires have been great to help us.

“They sent us some video a month ago, right before we sent him down to work on it. We’ve been in compliance with what they say constitutes a legal pitch. The one thing you don’t want to do is change a kid’s mechanics and see a kid hurt his arm. As long as he’s dragging the drag line with his toe, then it’s good.”

According to the league, Capps can throw how he likes, so long as his back foot never comes completely off the ground. I’m not going to go frame-by-frame, but if you re-visit the slow-motion video from this week, it would certainly appear that Capps’ back foot lifts off the mound during the initial hop. That’s what allows the toe of his cleat to change direction so quickly. During the second hop, maybe there’s a drag line, and maybe there isn’t. I don’t know. But Capps’ delivery has not become any more conventional. It’s just differently weird.

Could be, this would be an easy fix. Alternatively, could be the league doesn’t care. This one issue is really two issues. (1) Is it allowed? (2) Should it be? Even if the league decides Capps can keep doing this — and I assume that’ll be the case — this is going to go right back to being controversial, with Capps healthy and on a big-league roster. The relief of 2016 was only temporary, and Capps is going back to traveling. And while, on the one hand, no one expects the Padres to play a bunch of important games, an effective Capps could easily get traded around the deadline. So then the league could have Capps pitching in the playoffs, or even in the World Series. I’ve never before seen a delivery quite like this one, so I can forgive the league for not being prepared, but this has potential headache written all over it.

Conveniently, the footage of Capps in the bullpen is also footage of four other pitchers in the bullpen. So to help explain how the double-jump confers an advantage, I’ve approximated pitcher release points in here, with Capps in red.

Remember: It’s insane. It’s all insane. According to Baseball Savant, Capps’ forward extension effectively adds 3.6 miles per hour to his fastball. His fastball already clocks in around the upper 90s. No other pitcher has such a positive difference between actual velocity and perceived velocity. Tyler Glasnow, at +3.0, is the only pitcher within one tick. Capps’ fastball becomes completely terrifying.

…which works to the benefit of his curveball. Hitters have to brace themselves for the heat, because the necessary reaction time is borderline impossible. So it’s unfair when Capps breaks something off. In 2015, hitters swung at 84 of Capps’ curveballs. They missed with 64 of those swings. The numbers don’t make sense.

When Capps was last healthy, he posted the lowest contact rate of the PITCHf/x era. He posted the fourth-best FIP-, and the third-best xFIP-. His exaggerated delivery played a big part in that, and now, although the delivery has been tweaked, it still accomplishes the same thing. If anything, it might allow Capps to be more consistent. He’ll begin the season with an also-ran, but if he dominates, he’ll be highly sought after. He could go to a contender, and he could bring back a haul. Which would be significant, given how much disagreement there is over whether he should be able to throw like he does in the first place.

The last time Capps pitched, the league provided some clarity regarding what it would allow. Even that clarity seemed to be made up on the spot. Capps has now doubled his number of jumps, and it looks like, at least in the first one, his back foot comes completely off the ground. My hunch is, baseball isn’t finished having to respond to this. As long as Carter Capps is healthy and able to pitch, people are going to wonder why on Earth he can do what he does. And one shouldn’t forget that younger players like to mimic the things they see in the majors. I’m not sure how much MLB wants to see Carter Capps end up in the spotlight.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

I normally have nuanced, sometimes verbose views on things, but this is pretty simple: it either is against the rules or the rules should be amended to more clearly disallow it.

5 years ago
Reply to  Rationalysis

It needs to be a rule that is actually enforceable too. I have no idea how an umpire is supposed to be able to see if he drags his foot for each pitch. Just make a hop forward illegal. MLB should avoid being too cute here (like the NFL eg-“completing the act of catch”, etc). Rule should be black and white; easily enforceable.

Brad Johnsonmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Okra

The issue is that every pitcher drags their foot forward a considerable distance. My personal drag marks are over a foot long and I throw in the 70s. So you’re going to be dealing with some kind of gray area.

5 years ago
Reply to  Brad Johnson

Pushing off the rubber and dragging your foot is one thing, but Capps adds a hop (with a toe drag) after the initial push off. That hop is what moves it out of the gray area into the illegal. What is to stop anyone adding 2 or 3 more hops?

5 years ago
Reply to  brad.vargas

The mound eventually ends

5 years ago
Reply to  brad.vargas

additional hops would decrease velocity and control/command

5 years ago
Reply to  Okra

The NFL’s rules are obnoxiously nuanced because teams are so adamant about finding loopholes and things to exploit. If the NFL had a rule that said “you can’t use two hands to catch the ball,” players would learn to catch with their fingers instead of palms because “well, you didn’t say fingers!”

Anyway, I wonder if MLB couldn’t just say “hey Carter, YOUR delivery is illegal, stop it.” I’m sure there are legal reasons why they can’t. But instead of muddying up a rule, just tell this one player that there’s been a ruling about his specific motions.

5 years ago
Reply to  Rationalysis

Yeah, I don’t know how to add nuance to this. It’s clearly not fair. It’s not like he’s doing this to get to “pretty good.” He’s doing this and making himself the best reliever imaginable and it is excruciatingly clear that it he is only that good because of the hop. It is anti-competitive and unfair.