Monday, July 18, 2011

Concern for Capps

During the Sunday afternoon pre-game show on 1500ESPN, Twins general manager Bill Smith addressed the current shuffling at the backend of the bullpen. As diplomatic as he could, Smith acknowledged that Matt Capps wasn’t performing up to snuff, and that Capps was disappointed in himself, but – most importantly – his ability to rebound would be essential to the Twins’ success this season.

Say what you will about the Twins decision to trade for him last year or committing $7.15 million for this season, but as they said in the movie Juno, that’s one doodle that can’t be undid, homeskillet. While fans can whine and grouse about the past, at this juncture, the GM is exactly right: The Twins need an effective Matt Capps.

This winter the front office had a bevy of right-handed hurlers including Capps, Joe Nathan, Alex Burnett, Pat Neshek, Kevin Slowey and Anthony Slama. However, injuries and ineffectiveness has left the team operating with a shortage of righties. Now, knee-deep in the fringe of a pennant race, the Twins have admitted they are targeting outside help in this department, including Toronto’s Jon Rauch and Jason Frasor. For the Twins, if Capps is able to regain his form, adding another arm would give the bullpen much needed depth from the right-side. If he isn’t, it’s simply swapping out one arm for another.

So, how big is that “if” for Capps?

The coaching staff has said it is an unspecified mechanical issue, which is somewhat odd considering how good Capps supposedly is at self-diagnosis. According this preseason interview with Baseball Prospectus’s David Laurila, Capps said he is very much a proponent of using video analysis to study his mechanics:  
MC: The last couple of years, video is something I’ve really started to lean on quite a bit. I look at different things, like past at-bats against a hitter. I also try to watch myself, especially [in spring training]. I go back and watch videos of myself to kind of see what I’m doing now compared to then. I want to make sure that I’m on the same page mechanically and where I need to be.
 DL: When you’re out of sync, what is typically at fault?
MC: I’m usually breaking down my back side, or I’m jumping too soon, or both. They kind of go hand-in-hand with each other. If I break down my back side, I tend to leap toward home plate. I get a little fast in my body and my arm can’t catch up. That’s usually the first thing I watch for, to see what my back knee and my hip are doing.
Even with Capps’s well-trained eye, the ousted closer recently told’s Tom Pelissero that they have not been able to pick anything out that resembles a mechanical issue:
"I've looked. Andy's looked. (Expletive), I'm tired, but who's not? I think the workload early in the year has finally caught up a little bit. But I'll get through it. (Expletive), if I keep the ball down and get a lot of movement and not too much everything else, I should have been fine the last couple weeks. I'll go back to that and I'll be fine."
There is little doubt that he has been leaving his pitches up. Opponents have gone from hitting it on the ground 51% of the time in 2010 to just 31% of the time this season. It’s flat and hitters have been letting him know that with resounding enthusiasm. With his fastball not achieving the same results as last year, the decline in his swinging strikes, his constant shifting on the pitching rubber, not to mention the fact that his pitches are not moving as well as they did a year ago, it begs the question: Is Matt Capps playing hurt?

The impetus for raising the question goes beyond the recent string of rough outings. It is because Capps’s motion contains what is referred to as hyperabduction of the pitching elbow. Hyperabduction occurs when a pitcher lifts his elbow above shoulder-level which places added stress on those two areas and has led to both labrum and elbow injuries. The shot below highlights this effect:

While his injury history has been relatively clean, Capps did land on the disabled list with shoulder bursitis and elbow swelling while with Pittsburgh. Although he has not had any bouts with injuries since 2009, the ugly results in 2011 raises the question if he is playing through an injury.    

Undoubtedly, there is a level of machismo in baseball that would spur a player to continue on despite a nagging shoulder or a barking elbow. Nick Blackburn pitched all of last year with bone chips. Scott Baker, with the aid of a cortisone shot, attempted to persevere through the same. Ditto for Joe Nathan in 2009. What’s more is that there is the added financial incentive to remain on the field – even at less than 100%. For someone who is a free agent at the season’s end, they need to audition for their next paycheck. For relievers especially, spending the season in the whirlpool won’t land you multi-year contracts.

In the end, the best case scenario that Capps overcomes whatever mechanical issue they identify, he returns to being that consistent late innings pitcher in the second-half and any maneuver made at the deadline is just adding quality depth. On the other hand, if news breaks that Capps needs some DL-time, it should not come as a surprise.