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Pirates' Capps adds pitch to growing arsenal

| Monday, March 31, 2008

ATLANTA -- There is not much of a secret to Matt Capps' success. The Pirates' closer has a 95 mph fastball, and he sends it right at hitters.

Lots of pitchers can throw hard; the ones who thrive are consistently able to locate the ball wherever they want.

Capps can bring his heat without hesitation because he has pinpoint control. Last season, he threw 79 innings and had more saves (18) than walks (16).

During spring training, Capps began taking the next step in a process that he hopes will make him one of the game's elite closers. The burly right-hander began refining a potential second "out" pitch, something that will complement his four-seam fastball and make it even more devastating.

This new weapon is not a hard, biting slider or a wicked curve. Capps is throwing ... a changeup?

"It's something that will help me," Capps said. "I've been very comfortable with it in the past when I was a starter (in the minors). When I made the transition to the bullpen, we kind of went away from it. It's something I'm still pretty comfortable with. I've just got to get the consistency back."

Capps is hoping to get a chance to use his changeup tonight when the Pirates open their season at Turner Field against the Atlanta Braves.

A few days before the first spring training game, Capps threw his entire arsenal -- fastball, slider, sinker, change -- during batting practice against slugger Adam LaRoche. The sinker and changeup, in particular, gave LaRoche fits.

It was an indication of how deceptive Capps can be with the changeup -- using the same arm speed as the fastball, but generating vastly different ball velocity. That combination can destroy a batter's timing at the plate.

That strategy has worked for Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez and Trevor Hoffman. They'll set up a batter with fastballs, letting him get into a rhythm, then fire a changeup late in the count. Because Capps has such excellent control, he'll likely be ahead in the count when he uses the change.

"He's a stud, there's no doubt about it," LaRoche said. "What's going to make (the changeup) work for Matt is not throwing it a whole lot. I don't care how good it is or how good it ends up being. He may only throw it one out of 20 chances, but it's still there. It's a way to get into hitters' heads."

Capps is not the only Pirates pitcher who worked on the changeup during spring training. General manager Neal Huntington believes the change is seldom taught and under-used, and has told his staff to begin emphasizing the pitch in the club's player development programs.

"It's actually a tremendously useful pitch, if it's thrown right," Huntington said. "It's less stressful on the arm and it doesn't have to be located tremendously well if you have the right deception. It will be the pitch that we stress the most (in the minors)."

Director of player development Kyle Stark said parameters will be established for every pitcher in the Pirates' farm system.

"We'll say to each guy, 'We expect you to use your changeup X-percent of the time,' " Stark said. "We want to make sure it's not just lip service."

That doesn't always mean throwing the changeup in game situations. Stark said pitchers will be told to use the changeup grip in their long-toss programs or even when they throw to the plate in fielding drills.

"A lot of times, guys lose confidence in their changeup (in the minors) because they use it at the wrong times, have bad results and then don't want to use it," Stark said. "There will be minimum requirements across the board, realizing different guys have different strengths. And we're talking about starters, typically. It may not apply for relievers."

Capps, however, is a special case.

Capps was drafted as a starting pitcher, but that career path was detoured in 2004. He began the season with Single-A Hickory and had a 12.46 ERA after his first four starts. After a one-inning, eight-run outing in mid-May, Capps was removed from the rotation.

A month later, Capps was demoted to Williamsport of the short-season New York-Penn League. At the end of August, he lasted just two-thirds of an inning and yielded seven runs on seven hits against Mahoning Valley.

Part of the problem, Capps admitted, was his infatuation with the radar gun.

"I felt like I had to throw 94 or 95 mph to be good," Capps said. "I didn't really understand that if I got people out with 88-89 mph, that's fine. It took me a couple years to figure out that it's not how hard you throw it, it's whether or not you're getting the guy out."

To save his career, Capps agreed to move into the bullpen in 2005. The results were dramatic -- by the end of the summer, he was in Pittsburgh. Last season, Capps was Salomon Torres' understudy for just two months before grabbing hold of the closer's job.

"Matt has a chance to be an outstanding closer," Huntington said. "But if you look at the dominant closers, with the exception of (Mariano) Rivera, they have two dominant pitches.

"Matt's fastball, with a plus-velocity and plus-command, is an exceptional pitch. We need to get him something to go with it, to take him to the next level and allow him to be successful for a long period of time."

Notes: Right-hander Josh Sharpless (Freedom) has been released. Sharpless was removed from the 40-man roster in the offseason, then was the first player demoted from major-league camp during spring training. The Pirates said Sharpless reported to camp out of shape. ... Infielder Jorge Velandia opted to become a free agent rather than accept an assignment to Triple-A Indianapolis. ... Reliever Jonah Bayliss cleared waivers and was sent to Indianapolis. ... The Bucs reacquired utilityman Matt Kata in a deal with the Colorado Rockies and signed right-hander Jason Davis to be a starting pitcher at Triple-A Indianapolis. Colorado will receive future considerations for Kata, who hit .250 with one homer and 10 RBI in 47 games with Pittsburgh last season after beginning the year with Texas.

Opening Day starting lineups
Pirates lineup
Pos. Player
CF Nate McLouth
2B Freddy Sanchez
LF Jason Bay
1B Adam LaRoche
RF Xavier Nady
3B Jose Bautista
C Ronny Paulino
SS Jack Wilson
SP Ian Snell
Braves lineup
Pos. Player
2B Kelly Johnson
SS Yunel Escobar
3B Chipper Jones
1B Mark Teixeira
RF Jeff Francoeur
C Brian McCann
LF Matt Diaz
CF Mark Kotsay
SP Tom Glavine

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