Mariners pitcher undergoing mound metamorphosis

PEORIA, Ariz. — Something different and important happened during Carter Capps’ most recent Cactus League outing on St. Patrick’s Day at Peoria Stadium.

Capps came in to pitch the seventh inning against the Texas Rangers. On paper, it was an ordinary 1-2-3 inning with Capps striking out the first two batters he faced. Within those strikeouts was a sequence of pitches that revealed Capps’ growth from a guy that wants to be known as pitcher not a flamethrower.

Capps made quick work of lead-off hitter Jeff Baker, pumping three fastballs — the slowest of which registered 95 mph on the radar gun — by him for a strikeout.

Feeling the adrenaline that comes with a strikeout, Capps blew a 97 mph fastball by Brandon Snyder to start the next count.

But what happened then was unexpected and critical to the right-hander’s development for the upcoming season.

Ahead in the count against Snyder, Capps eschewed his fastball. Instead, he snapped off a perfect slider that Snyder could only wave at.

Up 0-2, it seemed likely that Capps would try to pump a 98 mph fastball right by Snyder. Nope, Capps threw another slider, burying it in the dirt trying to get Snyder to chase. It didn’t work. But Snyder was leaning.

Surely the next pitch would be a fastball. Capps would never throw three straight breaking pitches, not with a fastball like his. But that’s exactly what he did. The third slider cut off the plate outside. Again, Snyder was out on his front foot, clearly not expecting the off-speed pitch.

After three straight breaking balls, Capps cooly blew a 95 mph fastball right by Snyder for the strikeout.

The sequence delivered a message to opposing hitters. Carter Capps is no longer a one-pitch pitcher.

Capps tried to downplayed it a little.

“I was just trying to work on it,” he said. “It felt good and so I kept throwing it.”

The fact that he’s trying to work on it is important.

The slider hasn’t always felt good to Capps. He’s struggled with command on the pitch and with those struggles came a lack of confidence in it. A slider needs to be thrown with a high amount of conviction.

Still, the one thing he learned in his brief call up to the Mariners at the end of last season was the slider is a pitch he needs to be successful.

“You’ve got to have another pitch to get guys out,” Capps said. “Guys in the big leagues are so good that they are going to hit your fastball in the end. It’s just matter of time.”

Capps appeared in 18 games last season, pitching 25 innings and posting a 3.96 earned run average. He struck out 28 hitters and walked 11 batters. And he did it by almost exclusively throwing fastballs.

According to Fangraphs and Pitch F/X data, 82.6 percent of Capps’ pitches last season were fastballs. Although his fastball averaged 97.8 mph, it doesn’t matter in the big leagues. By the end of the season, hitters were cheating on the fastball and hitting it.

“The scouting reports are so advanced,” Capps said. “They know exactly what you have. They know what you can throw for a strike and what you can’t and they take advantage of it.”

Capps isn’t the first flamethrower that has had hitters catch up to his heat. It happens to plenty of young pitchers.

“He learned a great deal,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “The league showed him you need to use all of your pitches.”

Capps said: “If you can make your fastball look a little faster by throwing some breaking balls in there. You are only helping yourself out. If you can throw it for a strike in fastball counts, you are going to so much tougher.”

Capps is even working on his change-up too.

“Some guys can get away with having just two pitches, but I feel like I might need two or three,” he said.

He just wants people to know he has more than one pitch.

“Some people don’t even know if I have a breaking ball, they are only worried about the fastball,” he said. “There’s a lot more to pitching to than just fastballs and velocity.”

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