Twins closer Matt Capps’ best pitch this season is one he didn’t throw until two months ago.
Capps, in his third year with Minnesota, developed a split-finger fastball during spring training. The pitch looks like a fastball as it approaches the plate but dives off at the end. His use of it began as a suggestion from former Twins closer Eddie Guardado, who was serving as a special instructor with Minnesota in Fort Myers for a few weeks in March. As Capps was playing catch one day, Guardado and Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson were looking on and talking.
“The next thing I know, Eddie comes over and tells me to throw a ball like this,” Capps, 28, said of the splitter. “Andy’s standing there, I throw a couple of them that really were good.”
The 2011 season was a shaky one for Capps, who shared time as the Twins’ closer with Joe Nathan. In just his sixth appearance last year, Capps blew a save against the Tampa Bay Rays, and he finished the season with nine blown saves. On top of that, he struck out just 4.7 batters per nine innings and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.62 — both of which were career lows. Something had to change for Capps in 2012.
Enter the splitter.
Since spring, Capps has mixed in the split-finger fastball into his arsenal of pitches, and it’s been effective when he’s used it. When Capps picked up the save against the Blue Jays on Sunday at Target Field, he struck out Toronto’s Kelly Johnson on six pitches. Five of them were splitters, including the final swinging strike.
“I threw him five of them with the tying run on second base,” Capps said of the Johnson at-bat. “If that’s not confidence in a pitch, than I don’t know what is. … It’s been a pretty good pitch for me. I’ve got some pretty big outs with it. I think more than anything is it kind of gets them off the fastball.”
Though he has confidence in his splitter, Capps admits the pitch is a work in progress. This is the first time since 2005 that he’s added a new pitch. Back then, he developed a slider after previously having thrown a curveball.
“It’s not something you do every spring, that’s for sure,” Capps said of adding a new pitch.
Thanks in part to his splitter, Capps is a perfect 7-for-7 in save situations this season. Granted, Capps hasn’t had as many save opportunities while pitching for 11-26 Twins.
Capps has allowed an earned run in two of his seven saves — including two runs against the Angels on April 12 in the Twins’ 10-9 win — but he has yet to surrender a lead. In tie games, however, Capps has not had the same success. Both times he’s come into a tie game, Capps has taken the loss. The latest instance was Monday against Cleveland. After Minnesota rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth, Capps gave a run back in the top of the ninth.
Capps admits having a different mindset in save situations.
“It shouldn’t be (different), but it is,” Capps said. “It’s tough. I’ve pitched in two tie games at home and we’ve lost two tie games at home coming into the ninth. I think (Monday) was really the fourth day in a row for me, kind of beat up a little bit. I was leaving the ball up in the zone. I felt like my stuff was there. I just wasn’t throwing it where I wanted it to go.”
While Capps was hit with the loss that day, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire stood by his closer, saying he’d use Capps again in the same tie-game situation.
“He’s been lights-out. He’s our closer,” Gardenhire said. “Give him the ball. In the ninth inning like that, that’s who goes out there. Always has around here and it always will be.”
Gardenhire and the Twins remain confident with Capps as their closer. A quick glance around Major League Baseball, however, will tell you that no player has been quicker to lose his job this season than the closer.
Already, some of the game’s best closers have been replaced. That list includes Miami’s Heath Bell, who signed a three-year, $27 million deal in the offseason. Joining Bell among the replaced are Francisco Cordero of Toronto, Grant Balfour of Oakland and Carlos Marmol of the Cubs. Several others are on thin ice thanks to shaky performances early in 2012.
But Capps doesn’t spend much time worrying about the job security of his fellow closers.
“I leave here and baseball stays here,” he said. “For my wife’s sake and my son’s sake and my sanity, I try to leave it all here. I watch some games every now and then when I’m at home, but I’m not the guy who turns on (the highlights) first thing when I get home or first thing when I get up.
“What other guys do is what they do. I’ve got enough to worry about on my own.”