When I was initially putting together my rankings, I questioned myself on where to place right-handed reliever Carter Capps. Coming off a series of arm injuries, including a Tommy John surgery prior to the 2016 season and a shoulder surgery that ended his comeback attempt in the 2017 season, Capps is an unknown at this point. He has shown flashes of brilliance, yes, but he has only pitched more than 30 innings in a big league season twice. Over the last two years, Capps has thrown a grand total of 40 innings, with only 12 and a third of those coming in the big leagues.
But oh the potential. Capps has always tantalized with the potential, as his insane strikeout rates at nearly every level have drawn attention to him. Drafted in the third round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Seattle Mariners, Capps has always been known for two things as he has climbed through the professional baseball ladder: lots of strikeouts and that unorthodox throwing motion. We will touch more on the throwing motion later, but Capps has always been a bit of a unicorn because of it.
Originally used as a starter by the Mariners in 2011, Capps threw 18 innings for the Mariners Low-A affiliate, striking out 21 batters, walking 10, and giving up 12 earned runs. From the beginning, it was clear the strikeout potential was there. However, Capps would not make another official start for the remainder of his minor league career in Seattle, or really anywhere. Capps operated exclusively out of the bullpen the next season, throwing 50 innings for the Mariners’ Double-A affiliate. At this point, it was clear the M’s had someone special on their hands, as Capps posted a 72:12 strikeout to walk ratio and a 1.26 ERA.
Capps was so good in fact, that he earned a late-season call-up to the big leagues, just over a year removed from being drafted. While not nearly as dominant in the bigs, Capps still struck out 28 batters in 25 innings, although he did walk 11 and he saw his ERA rise over 3.00. However, his FIP (2.17) showed him to be an even better pitcher. For a debut, it was solid all-around.
Despite his initial big league success, things took a turn for the worse for Capps in 2013. Despite throwing 59 innings, and putting up similar strikeout and walk rates, Capps saw his ERA balloon to 5.49. When looking for a cause, it was clear what the issue was: Capps gave up way too many long balls. After giving up no home runs in 25 innings in the bigs in 2012, Capps gave up 12 long balls in his 59 innings in 2013. On top of that, his batting average against jumped to just shy of .300 while his WHIP increased to 1.63.
Following that rather large step back, the Mariners sent Capps to the Miami Marlins in a trade that netted them Logan Morrison in return. Coming off a poor season, Capps was looking to benefit from a change of scenery. And benefit he did. After seeing some time, in the minors, Capps had a good degree of success back in the majors, posting a 29.1 percent strikeout rate, a 5.8 percent walk rate, and a 2.35 FIP. Not only was Capps able to strikeout more hitters than he had in Seattle, but he also was able to walk less as well, while slashing his HR/FB rate quite a bit. It appeared like Capps was finally on the cusp of something great.
Despite starting the 2015 season back in Triple-A, it was clear the Marlins couldn’t keep the big right-hander a secret any longer. Capps had a freakish 2015 season, as he struck out 58 batters to just seven walks in 31 innings pitched. Good for an 8.29 K/BB rate, Capps had a most impressive season. On top of all that, he posted a 1.16 ERA and 1.10 FIP and was worth 1.3 fWAR, making him one of the most valuable relief pitchers in all of baseball. Despite pitching only 30 innings, Capps put himself into the top-25 relief pitchers in all of baseball by fWAR with easily the best strikeout rate in all of baseball.
Even with all his success in 2015, Capps hit another roadblock prior to the 2016 season, as he was diagnosed with a UCL injury that required Tommy John surgery. Months into his recovery, Capps found himself traded to the San Diego Padres alongside Luis Castillo, Josh Naylor, and Jarred Cosart in return for Andrew Cashner, Colin Rea, and Tayron Guerrero. Capps would not see any big league or minor league action until 2017.
Coming back from Tommy John surgery, the Padres were going to bring Capps back into the fold slowly. Capps began his season in early April with two scoreless appearances in High-A. Then, he was promoted to Triple-A, where he spent a majority of his season. In total, Capps found a good deal of success in Triple-A, posting a 2.81 ERA in 25 and two-thirds innings with a 26.7 percent strikeout rate and 8.6 percent walk rate. Once Capps had enough time to acclimate to being back on the mound, the Padres gave him a big league call-up in early August. To say Capps wasn’t the same pitcher is an understatement. Capps made 11 appearances in San Diego, throwing 12 and a third innings and posting a 6.57 ERA. The biggest concern of all was Capps’ rapidly declining strikeout rate, as it fell to a career-low 14.3 percent. However, his walk rate was also at a career low (4.1 percent) so it wasn’t all bad news. Overall, it was a bad season for Capps, but coming off an injury, it wasn’t the worst outcome.
There would probably be some more good news here if not for a late-season shoulder injury that shut Capps down for the remainder of the season. As if Tommy John surgery wasn’t bad enough, it was announced that Capps would undergo thoracic outlet surgery, which has become a more serious surgery than Tommy John. Despite the injury, the Padres appear optimistic that Capps will be ready to go in Spring Training.
Steamer: 40 innings, 22.9% strikeout rate, 9.4% walk rate, 4.11 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 0.1 fWAR
ZIPS: 36 innings, 9.82 K/9, 3.68 BB/9, 3.44 ERA, 3.43 FIP, 0.4fWAR
So Fangraphs has finally inputted the ZIPS projections into their player pages! Huzzah! While before I was simply looking at Steamer projections for this series of articles, I can now look at both Steamer and ZIPS for the last 13 players of the top-40 rankings. Looking at the two projections for Capps, ZIPS looks to be a little more bullish on the right-hander. Neither system is expecting a complete bounceback to pre-surgery form, but Capps is projected to make a significant improvement in 2018.
The most important thing here is not how Capps looks in 2018, but how he looks beyond that. However, the hard part is that Capps is eligible to become a free agent following the 2018 season. So there’s really three possible outcomes here: 1) Capps pitches well enough in the first half to make himself a valuable trade candidate and the Padres get some value in return, 2) He either pitches well or doesn’t pitch well and becomes a free agent after the year, or 3) The Padres find a way to re-sign him to a longer-term deal, whether he pitches well or not. It’s going to be important to see how Capps looks following his shoulder injury, but the possibility remains that he will never look like the pitcher he was in 2015. And that’s a shame.