Kinston’s Carter Capps: Baseball’s new King of Ks

Carter Capps was throwing gas. The velocity gauge on the scoreboard at Marlins Park said so: 99 mph. Then 100. Eventually, Capps reared back and got it up to 101.

The display glowed red.

The crowd oohed.

Capps faced three Cincinnati batters Sunday, struck out two. Par for the course – for him.

With a quirky, one-of-a-kind delivery, a 100-mph fastball, and one of the highest strikeouts rates in major league history, the reliever has baseball people – astonished hitters, in particular – abuzz in wonder and disbelief.

“He’s been ridiculous,” said one American League scout, who asked not to be identified. “It’s been absurd what’s going on.”

Capps is averaging 17.05 strikeouts per nine innings, which translates to nearly two per inning. Only one other pitcher in major league history, Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman, ended a season with a higher mark, finishing 2014 with an astonishing whiff rate of 17.67 K/9.

17.05 Carter Capps’ strikeouts per 9 innings

15.67 Aroldis Chapman’s strikeouts per 9 innings

11.84 Chris Sale’s strikeouts per 9 innings

Until Capps, the top figure recorded by a Marlin belonged to reliever Matt Mantei, who in 1999 averaged 12.39 K/9 – nearly five fewer strikeouts than Capps. Not even close, in other words.

Nobody saw it coming.

Capps has always thrown hard. But not this hard, and not with a controversial delivery that is more pronounced than it has ever been. A delivery that is both bizarre and borderline illegal.

“If you tried to teach that to somebody, they’d fall down,” said retired Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who has been as fascinated with Capps as everyone else.

Said the scout: “It’s the most awkward, unconventional delivery ever.”

First, some background.

A former catcher

Capps, a 24-year-old right-hander from Kinston, was developed as a catcher until a college coach removed the mask and shinguards and stuck him on a mound. Capps went 24-1 in his two seasons at Mount Olive College in Eastern North Carolina, at which point he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners.

Working out of the bullpen in his two seasons with the Mariners, Capps averaged a shade more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings – solid whiff figures, to be sure, but nothing closely approximating his staggering rate now.

After that season, the Marlins acquired Capps by trading Logan Morrison to Seattle. Capps did nothing spectacular last season – his first – with the Marlins. He dealt with an arm injury, appeared in only 19 games, and averaged 11K/9.

It wasn’t until this season that Capps got everyone’s attention.

While at Triple-A New Orleans in April, umpires twice called him for throwing illegal pitches because of his delivery, one in which Capps leaps off the rubber with his right foot, then drags it a good two feet in the dirt after it lands back on the mound.

Throw in the fact that Capps combines his 6-feet-5-inch frame with a deceptive throwing motion in which he hides the ball, bringing it behind his buttocks before going forward, and it adds up to a chilling at bat for hitters. By the time the ball leaves Capps’ hand, it looks to them like he’s sticking it down their throats.

“It’s an uncomfortable at-bat,” said Marlins first baseman Justin Bour, who remembers facing Capps in the minors. “When the ball leaves his hand, it looks like it’s coming out of a cape.”

Said the scout: “Uncomfortable is not even the word. It’s a scary at-bat. He has filthy [stuff] and he looks like he’s 35 feet away when he throws it.”

‘Perceived velocity’

According to data belonging to Major League Baseball Advanced Media, Capps gains an extra 8.2 feet with the extension in his delivery – a half-foot more than any other big-league pitcher – thus shrinking the distance to home plate from 60 feet 6 inches to 52 feet 4 inches.

As a result, the “perceived velocity” on Capps’ fastball gains an additional 3.5 mph, turning his 100 mph fastball into one that looks like 103.5.

Complicating matters even further for hitters is that Capps has finally mastered a slider that complements the fastball, making it that much better. Used primarily as a late-inning reliever, Capps has 48 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings.

“I think just throwing it for strikes just speeds up the fastball,” Capps said. “When you can throw your off-speed for strikes, they’ve got to honor it. If I throw a fastball, it’s harder to get the barrel there.”

Said Marlins pitcher Tom Koehler of Capps: “If the guy looks like he’s throwing 103, and he’s got an 83 mile-an-hour breaking ball, it’s impossible to react to both. If they’re thinking fastball at all, and he throws that slider that even looks like a fastball, you can’t lay off it because you’ve got to start so early.”

The scout termed Capps’ slider as a “wipeout breaking ball.”

Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis said he often hears hitters muttering to themselves whenever he’s behind the plate and Capps is on the mound, profanities mostly.

Mathis said they say things like:

“What is that?”

“Holy cow!”

“That’s quick!”

A legal delivery

As for the delivery, Major League Baseball has deemed it legal and Capps can go on using it. After all, no pitcher releases the ball with his foot still planted on the rubber. Capps just takes it to a new level.

“I’ve examined it closely,” the scout said. “He is not breaking the rule.”

Said Mazzone, who was the pitching coach for the great Atlanta Braves staffs that had Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz: “It’s unusual, but I think it’s OK. I don’t have any problems with it.”

Capps is tired of having to discuss and defend his delivery.

“I talk about it every day,” he said. “I can’t talk about the delivery anymore. I don’t have to explain it. I’m just going out there and pitching.”