Capps Catches On As A Pitcher

Mount Olive converted catcher is top D-II prospect

When Mount Olive (N.C.) coach Carl Lancaster first saw Carter Capps, he was a high school catcher who struggled to make a quick throw to second base, but his arm left Lancaster wondering what he could do on the mound.

"Myself and the other coaches said, 'This kid is playing the wrong position,' " Lancaster said.

It now seems obvious that Capps belongs on the mound. He is 16-0 in his college career and threw the first nine-inning no-hitter in school history on March 12. He was named the Coastal Plain League's top prospect last summer and was the preseason Division II pitcher of the year this spring. He has three shutouts this year and an ERA of 1.66.

But three years ago convincing Capps that becoming a pitcher would be his best move was difficult. No one had ever thought to put him on the mound before and he didn't want to give up catching. Capps said he didn't know what to think when Lancaster approached him about becoming a pitcher, but the coach remembers his response as tepid.

"He was not excited at all," Lancaster said. "So we shut that down and got him signed up and got him to school in the fall."

There, Capps found Mount Olive had a senior catcher in Tyler Smith, who preceded him as catcher at North Lenoir High School. Realizing that playing time would be difficult to come by early in his career, Capps agreed to redshirt his freshman season.

During Capps' redshirt season, Lancaster had him throw in the bullpen, as well as work on catching. But as Lancaster had expected, it was on the mound that he excelled.

"You could see him pick it up every day," Lancaster said. "All of a sudden he's throwing it by people."

In hindsight, Lancaster says he should have scrapped Capps' redshirt plans at that point and started using him in games. With Capps likely to leave Mount Olive after this year's draft, Lancaster can't believe he'll only get two years out of one of the best pitchers in the country.

Capps, however, said his redshirt year was beneficial.

"It was really a learning experience," he said. "It was definitely better that I sat out."

The learning has continued for Capps even as he has entered the Mount Olive rotation. During his 10-0 freshman season, Capps relied almost exclusively on a fastball that sits comfortably around 93 mph.

Capps went to the Coastal Plain League for the summer, where Lancaster requested he be used as a closer so he could get more regular work. Capps focused on developing his changeup and slider, though it was still his fastball that caught the eyes of scouts in the CPL's all-star game. Bolstered by adrenaline and knowing he would only throw one inning in the game, Capps hit 97 on the radar gun, the hardest he's ever thrown.

"I had never seen that many scouts in one spot," he said. "It was definitely a rush. I got to throw one inning and I wanted to make sure it counted. I lucked out and threw well."

Capps had to get used to the scouting attention, as scouts descended on Hickory, N.C., for his first outing of the year in February against Lenoir-Rhyne. He struggled in that outing but has had a better season so far, going 6-0, 1.66 with 58 strikeouts and just eight walks in 54 innings.

Having spent more time learning how to pitch, Capps' success is no longer as tied to luck as in the past. With the development of his secondary pitches, Capps is no longer just like a flame-thrower.

"I've become more of a pitcher than a thrower lately," he said. "I kind of have an idea of where to throw it in the zone and where to locate it."

With more pitches in his arsenal, Capps has seen his strikeout numbers increase even as opponents lock in on his fastball. He is averaging 1.07 strikeouts per inning this season, up from 0.79 last year.

The increase in swings and misses has led to a markedly lower opponents' batting average. Last year, opponents hit .252 off Capps. This year, that number is down to .179.

"He's a guy that's got tremendous velocity," Lancaster said. "Due to that, the majority of the time every batter is extremely aggressive. They know he's going to challenge them and they sit dead red."

Soon, Lancaster knows he will lose his ace. Major League teams tend to lock up big pitchers who throw hard and will likely throw harder in the future. Capps comes with the added bonus of still being raw and not overworked like many pitchers are in high school.

Capps and Lancaster both think Capps' velocity will increase as he fine-tunes his mechanics and fills out his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame even more. Lancaster said he thinks Capps has room for 20-25 more pounds.

"His shoulders are about as wide as two windows," he said. "There's so much more in there. There's a tremendous amount of potential still."

It's the same potential Lancaster saw in Capps four years ago, back when he was wearing catcher's gear. Now that potential is being harnessed to help make Mount Olive a national title favorite. And soon it will be honed in the minor leagues as one team tries to extricate a major leaguer from the Division II rough.