TORONTO — Carter Capps feels guilty, and he really shouldn’t.
There have nights during this season when, because of his prior workload, he wasn’t available to pitch no matter what the score. The limit is a precautionary measure that teams use for all relievers to keep them healthy over the course of a season.
Still, Capps can’t fight those feelings of remorse on his well-deserved days off.
“I feel bad,” he said. “And if I come in and know I can’t pitch that night, I feel like I’m wasting space in the clubhouse because I’m not able to help the team out that night.”
Luckily for the Seattle Mariners there haven’t been many guilt-ridden nights this season for Capps.
The hard-throwing right-hander is on pace to make more appearances this season and throw more innings than he ever has in his brief professional career. It’s a good thing since it means Capps has been effective in relief.
Capps has appeared 12 of the Mariners’ 30 games this season, throwing 16 innings and posting a 2-1 record with a 4.50 earned-run average. He has struck out 21 hitters in those 16 innings.
After fellow right-hander Stephen Pryor went down with a strained muscle on the side of his rib cage, Capps’ role increased. He’s become the Mariners’ primary late-inning setup man for closer Tom Wilhelmsen.
He’s been quite effective, even showing the ability to pitch more than one inning six times this season.
Capps is relishing his role. He’d pitch every day if he could.
“I love it,” he said. “It keeps me in the zone. When you sit on the bench for a few games, it’s a little tougher. You have to find your zone.”
Of course, Capps knows he can’t do that. And the Mariners aren’t about let him be idle. He’s on pace to make 65 appearances and pitch about 85 innings in relief this season. They are not dramatic numbers, but they would be the highest in Capps’ career. Last season, with stops in Double-A Jackson, Triple-A Tacoma and then with the Mariners – he made 57 appearances and pitched 76 innings.
But 39 of those appearances and 51 of those innings came in the minors, where relief pitching is quite different than in the majors. In the minors, everything is regimented. Pitchers throw on certain days, and rest is scheduled. Everything is planned. Surprises are rare.
“If I pitched back-to-back days, I would usually get the next day off 100 percent or maybe the next two days,” Capps said of the minor leagues. “If I threw a lot of pitches, or went multiple innings in an appearance, I would be off the next day.”
There isn’t quite so much rest in the big leagues.
“I would never get two full days off here,” Capps said. “If you are given the day off, you are ready to go the next day.”
And the pitching demands – particularly for Capps – are different. He tends to pitch in high-pressure situations. There are no free outs in the big leagues
“All the pitches are higher intensity,” Capps said. “Usually, it’s late in the game, guys are on and the game is close. Guys will battle you more. They take advantage of mistakes. The stress pitches are higher.”
Mariners manager Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis are seeking some balance with Capps to determine how much is too much. His right arm, which can rush a fastball up to the plate at 97-99 mph, is a special thing.
“Carl and I spend a lot of time talking about it each day,” Wedge said. “We do take into consideration if they do get up and get hot, but not go into the game as well.”
While every inning counts, there is no need to burn Capps out on less meaningful innings when the team is far behind. Capps’ appearances are going to come in those high-stress situations.
“We are not going to put the game ahead of him,” Willis said. “We are going to make sure he’s available for the situations we most need him, which is late in the ballgame, a close-game situation, preferably we are one or two runs up. The games where we are down, we have to be really careful and pick and choose those situations because we want him to be available on the good side of things.”
Capps isn’t receiving preferential treatment. The workload for all relievers is monitored. But he and his fastball are special. He’s 23 years old, so there isn’t much of a track record to go on.
“That’s the toughest part with young pitchers is getting the feel with how they react to it,” Wedge said of the increased workload.
Capps said he thinks he’s durable and effective even when he gets a lot of work.
“I’ve always been pretty good about bouncing (back) pretty quick,” he said. “I work out hard in the gym and with my throwing every day.”
Sometimes Capps works out a little too hard for Willis’ comfort .
“He works extremely hard to the point of where we had to ask him to back off and work a little bit smarter,” Willis said. “It all comes from a good place. He wants to be prepared. But you have to make sure you don’t overdo. He’s learning.”
One thing that makes Capps able to stay effective after multiple outings is his leg strength. Despite a frame that seems to be dominated by hat-rack shoulders, Capps has power in his legs and core.
“He gets a lot out of his legs and torso,” Willis said. “It starts at the ground and it works its way up. It’s where he gets all that velocity.”
And while Wedge and Willis will try to be vigilant about how much they use Capps, they know that unplanned days off through the season will help keeps Capps fresh as well.
“You go through periods where you are using your bullpen every night, then all of a sudden starters will turn things around where you have a guy that hasn’t pitched in seven days and another that hasn’t thrown in five days,” Willis said. “By the end of the year, it usually balances out. You just have to take things day by day and be mindful of what’s happened in the past five days and what the schedule is going forward.”