Carter Capps Has Become Baseball’s Most Unhittable Pitcher

Carter Capps allowed a three-run single on Tuesday. That’s both pretty bad and pretty weird. Three-run singles might be a post topic of their own, but the most interesting thing didn’t have anything to do with the play result. Before Xander Bogaerts ever swung the bat, Capps threw a fastball, and I’ll excerpt conveniently from an entry by Ian Browne:

Bogaerts hung in on a pitch that had a perceived velocity of 105.55 mph, the highest number of any pitch in the Major Leagues this season, according to Statcast™. The pitch looked that fast to Bogaerts, thanks to an extension of 9.5 feet by Capps.

This sounds complicated, but it’s simple to understand. Not a whole lot of time passed between Capps releasing the ball and the ball arriving around home plate. That’s all perceived velocity is — a kind of measure of flight time. According to Statcast, this year, no pitch has had a smaller flight time than the one Bogaerts drilled for a hit. That’s remarkable, on Bogaerts’ part, and that’s remarkable, on Capps’ part. Capps’ part, we’re becoming more familiar with.

This is a post about unhittability, and all I’ve talked about so far is a hit. That’s probably bad structure, but the pitch that Bogaerts hit for a single in the first place helps get us to where we’re going. Early on, there would’ve been little reason for Carter Capps to be on your radar. He was an intriguing young middle reliever, but I’m a professional baseball writer, and I’ve never heard of a number of intriguing young middle relievers. Then Capps was dealt for Logan Morrison, and maybe you noticed. Then April happened, and, you noticed.

April brought us the controversy about Capps’ delivery. April made Capps a borderline household name, at least among those households that pay a decent amount of attention to baseball. To refresh your memory:

Here’s a clip from the Braves’ broadcast, drawing arrows to correspond to Capps’ estimated release point:

If you recall, Capps had some issues with his delivery in the minors. A couple times in a row, an umpire declared he was throwing illegal pitches, and Capps and the Marlins sought league clarification. What Capps was told was that he was okay, so long as he dragged his back foot instead of lifting it in the air. As several have noted, there are parallels between Capps’ delivery and Jordan Walden’s. Capps hasn’t been in any trouble since, with the league basically signing off on this. And make no mistake, this is kind of new. Capps always had an exaggerated delivery, in college and with the Mariners, but it didn’t look quite like the above.

Capps jumps. If you look at the second .gif above, not only do you see him jumping off the rubber, but you see a mark on the mound right around where his back foot lands on the dirt. That mark is the result of pressure, suggesting that Capps is pushing off some, after coming back down. It doesn’t seem like a legal pitch, but MLB hasn’t spoken up yet, and it would be weird for them to suddenly start. So if this is ever going to be addressed, it won’t be until at least after this season.

And why would Capps jump forward? It’s deceptive, and it gets him closer to the plate. So it reduces the average flight time of his pitches, because said pitches have less distance to cover between hand and glove, or hand and bat. Think of it as Capps effectively lengthening his stride, or his arm. Not long ago, Ben Lindbergh dug into the Statcast information that was available to him. What Carter Capps doesn’t do is throw his fastball as hard as Aroldis Chapman. But Capps’ fastball spends less time in the air than Chapman’s, because of that delivery. So in terms of perceived fastball velocity, Capps was the king. He threw one of those king-like pitches to Xander Bogaerts. The pitch got hit, but even kings make mistakes.

Little of what’s above is actually new. We’ve known for months that Capps is an odd bird. And we’ve known for at least weeks that he gets a substantial velocity boost from the way that he throws. At least, as far as the hitters are concerned. So, already, Capps was curious. The only thing left was to monitor his results. Now those results are getting out of hand. Tuesday aside, Capps looks like he’s the most unhittable pitcher in baseball. It’s been only a short amount of time, but the case is convincing.

Set a pathetically low minimum of 20 innings pitched. 20 innings are 20 innings, but it’s better than 10 or 0 innings, and we’re just trying to learn, here. The current leaders in strikeout rate:

  1. Carter Capps, 50% strikeouts
  2. Dellin Betances, 42%
  3. Andrew Miller, 42%

Cool. Now, relatedly, the current leaders in lowest contact rates allowed:

  1. Carter Capps, 50% contact
  2. Andrew Miller, 57%
  3. Craig Kimbrel, 61%

What gets me are both the realities of the leads, and the amounts by which Capps is in front of second place. In both categories, it’s Capps by a landslide. Now let’s take it back to 2002. Only 2014 Chapman and 2012 Kimbrel have finished with higher strikeout rates than Capps has at the moment. And no one has finished with a lower contact rate. Capps has generated more swings and misses than he has swings and contacts. Making contact against him has been something worse than a coin flip. That’s a silly statistic, but Capps is a silly pitcher.

Here’s a big table of some pitch data. Baseball-Reference has such information stretching back to 1988, so let’s make use of it. Here are each season’s lowest contact rates allowed, given a minimum of 20 innings. I shouldn’t need to remind you that, of course, Capps’ 2015 season isn’t complete. This is just for some reference. There are slight differences in reported contact rates between Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, but we can live with that.

Season Pitcher Contact%
1988 DeWayne Buice 68.1%
1989 Tom Henke 63.4%
1990 Rob Dibble 62.1%
1991 Rob Dibble 64.1%
1992 Rob Dibble 57.5%
1993 Greg McMichael 64.9%
1994 Bruce Ruffin 64.2%
1995 Curt Leskanic 64.1%
1996 Trevor Hoffman 62.1%
1997 Ricardo Rincon 64.1%
1998 Mike Williams 57.8%
1999 Armando Benitez 57.3%
2000 Robb Nen 62.0%
2001 Chad Fox 61.9%
2002 Eric Gagne 62.0%
2003 Ryan Wagner 52.3%
2004 Brad Lidge 52.1%
2005 Rudy Seanez 59.5%
2006 Michael Wuertz 63.4%
2007 Brad Lidge 61.6%
2008 Brad Lidge 62.5%
2009 Michael Wuertz 58.1%
2010 Carlos Marmol 59.9%
2011 Al Alburquerque 57.2%
2012 Craig Kimbrel 58.4%
2013 Greg Holland 61.2%
2014 Aroldis Chapman 54.6%
2015 Carter Capps 47.2%

Capps has the smallest rate in the table, followed by 2004 Lidge, who’s behind by five percentage points. You find some flukes and some dominant long-term relievers. That’s the way that it goes, because relievers are unreliable, and they can get hurt. But Capps, for now, is healthy. And Capps, unlike some of the pitchers above, throws two-thirds of his pitches for strikes. He’s not just forcing hitters to chase sliders out of the zone. Capps isn’t quite that one-dimensional.

But he does have a breaking ball, and the numbers are stupid. Batters have swung at it 59 times. Batters have missed it 47 times. It’s like a page out of the book on Aroldis Chapman’s changeup, where Capps’ breaking ball is dangerous both because it’s a good breaking ball, and because it isn’t his fastball. Against Capps, hitters have to gear up for 98, which looks like 101. Then he throws this slurvy thing at 84. It’s difficult to protect against them both, and when there are two strikes, Capps throws both pitches in roughly equal amounts.

Unsurprisingly, Capps is a difficult pitcher to pull the ball against. And he’s clearly achieving a new level, having become more comfortable with this exaggerated throwing motion. In three previous years in the majors, Capps’ strikeout rate topped out at 29%. His contact rate was never lower than 72%. He’s trimmed his out-of-zone contact rate by more than half. It doesn’t seem like someone should be able to throw a baseball quickly and accurately with Capps’ motion, but he’s got it mastered, having been helped by the Marlins, and with that motion and two pitches, Capps doesn’t need anything else. Aside, that is, from assurance that this motion won’t soon become illegal.

And that’s something baseball might well have to deal with. It would be one thing if Capps were just good, like Walden has just been good. But to this point, Capps has mostly made a mockery of his opponents, potentially motivating other, fringy relievers to try to mimic the same motion. It would be difficult to argue the delivery isn’t giving Capps an advantage, and baseball needs to think long and hard about whether it wants that advantage to be available to other guys. Not that it’s an easy thing to copy, but it could be copied, and baseball probably doesn’t want all of its pitchers looking like this. How many would it allow? Right now the game is comfortable with two, but it might not be so comfortable with, say, five, or 10, or 100. This is far from a league priority, but right now it’s kind of like a loophole, and there are careers on the line for hundreds of pitchers just looking for a chance.

Carter Capps has turned himself into something absurdly good. It’s interesting to wonder if, as a consequence, Capps is just doing himself future harm. Yet, all that is right now is speculation. Capps’ dominance, meanwhile, is reality. It’s a pretty good way to live in the moment.

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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8 years ago

if this is a legal delivery, the batter should be able to slide back out of the batters box (as long as he drags his foot).

clearly this should be banned.

8 years ago
Reply to  Walter

Baseball’s continued inaction on this is puzzling and frustrating.

8 years ago
Reply to  Orsulakfan

It will be addressed ( eliminated ) by the beginning of next year.

I think the league is reluctant to make rule changes midseason for some reason, and at this point it’s a little unfair to make the guy have to adjust his delivery after telling him it was ok. It’s not like he can just say “OK” and pitch effectively the next day – that will be a whole process.

They should have stopped this on day one, but since they didn’t, as long as he doesn’t hit a guy in the head, they’ll probably just allow it for the remainder of 2015 and then come up with a rule.

Carl Allen
8 years ago
Reply to  francis

They said it was legal as long as he dragged his foot and didn’t push off from in front of the rubber.

What has happened, is that he’s dragging his foot on sliders and pushing off from the dirt part of the mound for fastballs- the latter of which they said would be illegal but have done nothing about.

Phantom Stranger
8 years ago
Reply to  Walter

If MLB doesn’t make this hop illegal very soon, we will start seeing dozens of pitchers hitting the majors with this motion. It provides far too much of an advantage when a tall pitcher can cut the standard 60’6″ distance and make it seem like he’s throwing 105 MPH.

I have no idea why they ever allowed it at the minor league level, frankly. It threatens the integrity of the batter-pitcher confrontation. Why don’t we just let pitchers get a running start from second base if we allow this?

8 years ago

“Why don’t we just let pitchers get a running start from second base if we allow this?”

Then it wouldn’t be baseball, it’d be cricket.

But even in cricket, the “bowler” is required to release the ball in front of a fixed point that’s the same for ALL bowlers.

What Capps is getting away with here is total bullshit. Some MLB official or officials apparently ‘took a view’ at some point and either were conned or self-deluded into the idea that Capps was actually “dragging” his right foot that 15-20 inches ahead of the rubber before pushing off to turn his hips to generate his throw. Maybe he was – THEN! For THAT demonstration! But now there are quite literally hundreds of multi-angled videos showing that Capps is not “dragging” his right foot, but instead is using the rubber to push his right foot ahead, AIRBORNE for 15-20 inches, to land on it’s left edge and THEN and THERE to push off to turn his hips.

No pitcher is releasing at 60 feet 5 inches, indeed little Timmy Lincecum at his peak released from inside 49′ to the front of home plate. But Capps’ bunny-hopp being permitted allows HIM EXCLUSIVELY to release at least 3 feet inside THAT! Capps is releasing at closer-to-damn 45 feet from the front of home plate. That puts major league baseball back to when teams used ONE PITCHER over an entire season for every single pitche, when the likes of Tommy Bond and Ol’ Hoss Radbourn et al were mowing down just about every batter in front of a rubber set 50 feet from the front of home plate.