Chris Capuano

Remembering Chris Capuano, Pickoff Master

On July 25th of this year, the Brewers took on the Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Arizona won 2-0, as Rubby de la Rosa outdueled Taylor Jungmann. For the Brew Crew, the most influential play in the game occurred in the bottom of the first. After Ender Inciarte led off with a double, improving his team’s win probability to 60.7 percent, he took a step too far off the bag, and Jungmann cut him down:

This pickoff — which brought the Diamondbacks’ win probability back down to 52.6 percent, an eight-percentage-point drop — was one of a mere six pickoffs on the year for the Brewers. This club hasn’t accrued many of those recently, ranking at or below the Major League average for nine straight seasons. But before that time, there lived a man who transcended the norm, whose ability to catch runners leaning took the league by storm.

Christopher Frank Capuano pitched rather terribly in 2015, with a 7.97 ERA and 6.50 DRA across 40.2 innings for the New York Yankees. That fact, coupled with the fact that he turned 37 in August, makes me think he’ll hang up his cleats at some point in the next few months. When he does so, someone at BP Milwaukee will write a career retrospective to memorialize him, as they should. For now, though, I want to focus on one esoteric element of his performance.

Coming to the Brewers in the 2003 offseason (along with a cast of thousands), Capuano joined the starting rotation at the beginning of 2004. He’d remain there through 2007, piling up 678.2 innings of 4.38-ERA ball. Tommy John surgery and the subsequent recovery kept him off the mound in 2008 and 2009, but he posted a 3.95 ERA in 66.0 frames during the 2010 season before signing with the Mets. All told, he worked his way to a 4.34 ERA over 744.2 innings with Milwaukee — solid considering his run environment, but not especially noteworthy.

With that said, he truly excelled at one thing: Pickoffs. In the 2004-07 stint, he caught an astounding 26 baserunners, by far the most in the National League. He averaged 7.7 pickoffs on a per-200 inning basis, which also led the league (among pitchers with at least 500 innings):

Rank Player IP PO PO/200
1 Chris Capuano 678.2 26 7.7
2 Doug Davis 826.0 20 4.8
3 Jeff Francis 634.2 12 3.8
4 Andy Pettitte 519.2 9 3.5
5 Claudio Vargas 552.2 6 2.2

In both areas, his at-one-point-teammate Doug Davis came in second — but Davis was no match for Cappy. (On that note, I’ll also mention that Capuano has more pickoffs than any other pitcher in Brewers history, despite placing 19th in innings.)

How did that affect Capuano’s game? Well, he allowed just 10 stolen bases in those four seasons, along with 13 failed attempts — nine of which came on Capuano’s throws. In other words, potential basestealers went 11-for-15 against him when we take out his contributions. Throwing primarily to catchers without arms (and to an aging Damian Miller), Capuano had to survive on his own. And as we’ve seen, he didn’t just survive, he thrived.

The extent of his excellence becomes more clear when we look at defensive metrics. According to DRS, Capuano’s ability to keep opponents from moving ahead saved the Brewers 13 runs from 2004 to 2007. That may not seem like much, but over that same span, Baseball-Reference puts Capuano’s pitching itself at 14 runs above average. This means that by holding runners on base — by possessing such a deadly pickoff move — Capuano essentially doubled his value.

This also had ripple effects elsewhere. With runners scared to take off against him, Capuano prevented them from coming around to score. His 73.0 percent strand rate from 2004 to 2007 topped the Major League average of 71.1 percent, while ranking a solid 34th out of 89 NL qualifiers. Despite mediocre walk rates and not enough strikeouts, Capuano managed to do pretty well for himself, because he didn’t allow the competition to make things worse.

In terms of pickoffs, Capuano’s most successful single campaign was 2005, when he snared a dozen runners over 219.0 innings. No pitcher has reached that mark since; its last occurrence before then came in 1992, when Terry Mulholland accumulated 15 pickoffs. In more advanced terms, that translated to six stolen base runs saved, a figure that only three other pitchers have topped since 2003:

Name Year Inn SB CS CS% PO RsbP
Johnny Cueto 2012 217.0 1 9 90% 9 6
James Shields 2011 249.1 6 5 45% 12 6
Greg Smith 2008 190.1 11 12 52% 15 6
Chris Capuano 2005 219.0 2 9 82% 12 6

When you’re in the company of Cueto and Shields, you’ve done something right. Perhaps aided by that tenacity, Capuano pitched to a career-best (with Milwaukee) 3.99 ERA in 2005.

That would ultimately prove to be his zenith. Umpires dinged Capuano for four balks that year, which took a toll on his pickoff attempts:

Major League rules 8.01 and 8.05 apply to legal pitch deliveries and balks. The section that has been giving Capuano and Davis trouble is 8.05(c), which rules it a balk when, “the pitcher, while touching his plate, fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base.”

In practice, that means a pitcher must limit his stride within the 45-degree angle between first base and home plate.

According to Capuano, it’s beginning to have an effect. He has begun limiting his number of pickoff moves.

“You have to constantly try to change things up and use it more sparingly,” Capuano said. “It cuts down on your pickoffs, but it doesn’t affect your ability to keep runners close. You have to really make sure that you’re not cutting it close to the [45-degree] line. Moving that runner up on a balk is exactly what you’re trying not to do.”

In 2006, Capuano’s pickoffs fell to six, then to two in 2007. From there, he went to surgery, which harmed his throws. He told the New York Times in 2011 that the elbow injuries had forced him to change his delivery from the stretch. On the field, that meant that he only picked off nine runners between 2010 and 2015 — a third of what he had accomplished from 2004 to 2007, and in slightly more innings (694.0). Father Time claims us all, and Capuano, devilishly talented though he may have been, couldn’t escape that fate.

But enough of the doom and gloom. Let’s get to the best part: video! Sadly, no footage of Capuano’s Milwaukee pickoffs appears to exist; however, we can still watch him bust a move from later in his career. Here, he catches Starlin Castro in 2011 with the Mets:

Here, as a Dodger in 2012, he spies Garrett Richards leaning out too far:

Here, in a rare burst of competence for the Bronx Bombers, he hoses George Springer:

And, as one final treat, he’ll gun down Hayato Sakamoto in the Japan All-Star Series:

In all of these clips, we see the same characteristics — Capuano always has one eye on the runner, and when he sees him trailing the bag by enough (or taking off), he breaks from his delivery and rifles it to the first baseman. It’s that sort of move that assassinated so many runners while he pitched for the Brewers; although he never fulfilled his full potential, this area of his game made him one of the most captivating players to watch.

Since Capuano left the team five years ago, no one has really filled his shoes. Chris Narveson and Randy Wolf picked off a fair amount of runners, but their poor performance overall abbreviated their tenure in Milwaukee. Yovani Gallardo also stood out somewhat in this regard, and he likely will continue to do so for whichever team signs him in the coming months. That isn’t to say that the Brewers have no hope for the future. Jungmann notched seven pickoffs over his 632.2-inning minor-league career; more impressively, Josh Hader has racked up 12 in just 363.1 frames on the farm. If they can blossom into capable Major League starters, they could terrorize runners like Capuano once did.

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