NEW YORK -- Chris Capuano, 35, has started 209 baseball games in his major league career. He's pretty good at it, posting an xFIP under 4.00 in each of the past four seasons for the Brewers, Mets and Dodgers.
So for that reason, among others, it's a bit surprising to find him in the bullpen this season for the Boston Red Sox, after signing a one-year, $2.25 million contract.
He's not the type of pitcher you necessarily expect to flourish in a relief role. Usually, converted starters use a jump in velocity, thanks to the shorter outing, to overpower hitters. The ability to throw more than two pitches for strikes isn't vital, with relief pitchers generally facing hitters only once per game.
"I'm not going to overpower you with velocity," Capuano told me as we chatted in front of his locker prior to Saturday's game against the Yankees. "My average fastball is 88, 89. On a great day, I might hit 91 or 92. So I'm not going to sit there and blow fastballs by you. I'm going to need to locate, hit the corners, work at the knees, change speeds, change eye levels, change break, things like that, to be effective."
That's where things get tricky for most pitchers of Capuano's type. Capuano features four pitches: a two-seam fastball, a changeup, a slider and a curveball, roughly in that order of prominence. But getting those pitches ready, in a situation where you might have time to only throw fifteen or twenty pitches, total, is anything but simple.
But as should surprise no one, the Duke graduate has come up with a way to both keep those pitches fresh, without fatiguing his arm in the process.
"Maybe five days a week, after I do our daily catch program, rather than throw a flat ground, as you see a lot of our pitchers do," Capuano said, "I'll just get on a mound, move up maybe four or five feet in front of the rubber. And I'll have the catcher sit both sides of the plate, and run through all of my pitches, just one time through. I think that helps to keep the feel, without taxing the arm."
Essentially, this is part one of two for when he warms up to pitch that night. Then comes the standard getting ready, once the Red Sox call on him, at which point Capuano is throwing all fastballs.
"When that phone rings, and you get up, your first order of business is to get your arm loose," Capuano said. "You're trying to locate your pitches, but you're really just trying to get your arm loose. And then if you have the luxury of extra time or pitches, you might try a little more fine commanding. But that's rare."
It's very early, but the results have been excellent. Capuano has three single-inning appearances under his belt, along with a two-inning stint on April 5. He hasn't allowed a run, nor a walk, and has struck out five in those five innings.
He's doing it while throwing his fastball less than half the time, featuring his slider twice as often as he did over the past few years. It's now Capuano's choice roughly as often as his changeup, which he considers to be his best pitch. Nor has Capuano given up the curveball.
It's a repertoire that brings to mind Brian Matusz of the Orioles. There are differences, though. Matusz had struggled in a starting role before making the conversion, and he did so far earlier in his career. Matusz also has a better fastball, and arguably better stuff generally. Accordingly, the Orioles have been using him as a lefty specialist.
Capuano could certainly handle that job -- lefties have a .616 career OPS against him. But Capuano's versatility, if it keeps up, makes him an intriguing option for John Farrell in a variety of ways. I asked Farrell whether he expected Capuano to continue his mastery of all four pitches, even as his spring training starting stints faded.
"There's no reason to think he wouldn't be able to throw them," Farrell said in his pregame media presser Saturday. "We're gonna put him in games to get outs, whether that's one inning or three innings. And because he is a veteran, he does have a unique ability to have touch and feel of four pitches as soon as he walks into a game. He's a reliever that uses a full complement of his pitch mix."
More significantly for how the Red Sox can come to rely on Capuano, they haven't had to provide the longtime starter with additional time or other accommodation to get him into games.
"They've treated me as a normal reliever, which is fine with me," Capuano said.
That Capuano spent spring training logging starter innings reflects an addition role he has on this Red Sox roster, which is the fallback plan should injuries strike any of the starting five.
"Over the course of spring training, I was on the same day as [Jon] Lester," Capuano said. "Even though I was building my pitch count as a starter, I was piggybacking him, two or three times in spring training. And I noticed in the bullpen, and in previous years when I've come out of the bullpen, that it doesn't take me that long. I kind of stay stretched and loose throughout the game, and once I get ten, fifteen pitches, I'm good to go."
This is not to say that Capuano has given up on the idea of starting. Nor have the Red Sox, who may well use him in that role this year, too. But he did understand, perhaps before the league as a whole did, that he's moved far beyond the injuries that once threatened to derail his career, forcing him to miss all of 2008 and 2009.
Now he gets to prove it, just 90 minutes across the Mass. Pike from where he grew up in Springfield, Mass.
"I still, first and foremost, enjoy starting," Capuano said. "That's kind of what I'm trained to do, and that's where I still see myself down the line. But I did embrace the chance to come to the Red Sox, knowing I was the sixth starter, knowing that the five guys that they have, if they were healthy, were going to be the guys, tremendously talented, all of them.
"That was weighed in with the chance to come to the team I watched growing up as a kid, to a well-run organization like the Red Sox. All of that comes into play. So when you walk through that door, you check your ego there, and [ask], 'What do I need to do to help you guys win today?'"