There is an old adage that says that those who can’t do, teach. To be honest, it’s one of the most ridiculous ideas that has ever been created. If one took a close look at those who have been teachers or professors over the years, they would find a list of some of the greatest within their area of expertise. Men like Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Galileo Galilee were all professors at one point, and no one would say that they could not do.
What these men were able to do was to take their special form of genius and to develop an ability to explain how they came to master their disciplines so that others could learn and grow. It takes a special kind of person to have success in their area of expertise and yet still be able to help others to have similar success.
In the sports world, few of the great athletes of our time have been able to do so. Men such as Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and Bart Starr were gods on the ice, court, or field, yet could not take their special understanding of the game and teach others how to have a similar kind of success. It’s not that they weren’t articulate, knowledgeable, or innovative in the way that they explained the game. It’s simply that they were unable to get their players to have the same kind of vision that they had when they played.
Truly, it takes a special kind of person to be able to translate success on the field as a player into a successful career coaching others so that they can improve their game. This season, the Wichita Wingnuts are hoping that one of their all-time greats will be able to do just that as Anthony Capra takes over as the team’s new pitching coach.
The Wingnuts Way
Since the Wichita Wingnuts became a professional baseball, the organization has been dedicated to creating an atmosphere that is not only focused on winning, but also where the culture of the team promoted the idea of learning and character. The team wanted talent, but unless you were a player who played the game the right way both on the field and in the locker room, you had no business donning the Wingnuts uniform.
The very first pitching coach of this team was Luke Robertson, who spent nine years in that position and created an atmosphere where pitchers flourished. While brother Josh, the GM of the team, did a great job of finding pitchers that fit into the mold, it was Luke’s job to take each pitcher’s game to another level. The results speak for themselves.
In nine seasons, 27 pitchers had their contracts purchased by Major League organization. That includes Chris Smith and James Hoyt, who are pitching for the Astros and A’s respectively, and Junior Guerra, who was the Milwaukee Brewers opening day starter this season. Elevation to excellence became the standard under Robertson and former Manager Kevin Hooper.
Part of that excellence was that players gained an education with Wichita. It was the collegial manner in which the team was run that led the Minor League Sports Report to dub the team as Wingnuts University. No person embraced that attitude more than Anthony Capra.
A Successful Career on the Mound
Anthony Capra spent nine years playing professional baseball. After being drafted by the Oakland Athletics in 2008, Anthony spent five seasons with the organization, posting an 18-33 record with a 4.16 ERA. He reached AAA-Sacramento in 2011, but a series of injuries and struggles led to his eventual release in 2012.
Looking for an opportunity to continue his professional career, the left-hander signed with the Wichita Wingnuts that same season. He made 11 starts for the Wingnuts that year, going 3-2, with a 4.99 ERA.
Anthony would spend parts of five seasons in Wichita, while also playing a season in Monclova of the Mexican League and a season in the Caribbean League. At the end of the 2016 season, Capra would find himself fifth on the Wingnuts all-time list for wins and innings pitched. He is the club’s all-time leader in strikeouts (305).
While having a quality professional career, Anthony had to struggle through some individual challenges, most notably with the Yips, the syndrome where a pitcher is suddenly unable to throw strikes. This happened to LHP Rick Ankiel, who turned to playing the outfield because he was unable to defeat the condition. However, Capra was not going to give into anything, especially when he knew he was mentally tough enough to defeat it.
“I pride myself on not giving in and not giving up regardless of the situation,” Capra told the Minor League Sports Report two seasons ago. “There would be times when it would be easy for me to give up, but as a competitor, I consider myself an extremely fierce competitor, and I don’t like anything to get the best of me.”
Time to Start Over
The 2016 season was not a very pleasant one for Anthony Capra. A hamstring injury sidelined him for over a month and, when he returned, he found that he struggled to regain his control. This led him to believe that it was time to start taking his life in another direction. With Robertson deciding to retire, becoming the team’s new pitching coach seemed like a natural fit.
“I always thought the easiest transition coming out of the game, whenever my time was coming to an end where I was done playing, would be getting into coaching. I didn’t know what level. I always kind of thought college, which is still an option down the road, but I think that this is a really good level for me. Once I tore the hamstring last year, I had a couple of conversations with Josh and said I wanted to get into coaching. I’ve been in the league for parts of five years now and everything kind of wound up perfectly for me.”
Anthony, or Professor Capra as he is referred to as at the MLSR, knew that his knowledge of the league and the team would make him an ideal fit. He played a year under Pete Rose, Jr. as the Wingnuts manager, and knew that his five years as a pitcher in the American Association gave him a good understanding of the teams. He has also seen what it takes for a person to get back into affiliate ball.
“I know some of the teams, Gary for instance is kind of a small ball team and I can kind of let guys know that in advance. Not that that’s breaking ground information. For me, what I would love to do is, since I have been to affiliate ball and I have been to some of the higher levels, is to help others to reach affiliate ball since I know what it takes to get out of here. Not that I ever did that personally, but I was close. There’s enough guys on this team who shouldn’t be here. They should be in affiliate ball. So, I’m just trying to help them to stay consistent and get out of here, and get to those levels is what I’m looking to do here.”
In April, Anthony was officially named the pitching coach of the Wichita Wingnuts. This was the job that he had wanted from the moment that he considered retirement, but he acknowledges that the transition from the field to the dugout has not been an easy one.
“Not playing is really hard and being around the guys each day, it’s really hard not to be on the mound. At the same time, I think the writing was kind of on the wall for me. My body was kind of quitting on me, competitively, fighting the yips for two seasons and having success in between, having to come back a little bit last year was hard. So, for me, I think I think it was just time and I was comfortable with it.”
Let Me Introduce, Professor Capra
Succeeding such an established and successful man as Luke Robertson was not going to be an easy task, but Anthony Capra did not come into the job expecting to be Robertson in anyway. He wanted to make sure that he coached according to his own philosophy, working off the lessons he had learned from others.
One of the biggest areas where he knew he could make a difference was in the mental aspect of the game. Because of his own struggles in this area, he knew what were the things that would likely cause a player to lose confidence or to become overly critical of himself. As a result, he wanted to mentor his staff in the same way that others had taught him.
“The biggest part for me is the mental game. I went through a lot in my career. I was fortunate in that going to Wichita State, pitching under Brent Kemnitz, who was the mental guru, really helped me to understand the mental side of this game a lot better. I just absorbed a lot of those things as far as keeping guys consistent and not taking things home from the field if you have a bad outing. He taught us to get over it by the time you’re out of the shower, or at least that’s how I always was, I would take things with me to the showers and once I was out of there I had a fresh start.”
The first thing that the Professor wanted to make clear was that he was not taking the job to be the guru that they were all to follow. He wanted to make sure that his players had the opportunity to grow as pitchers and men, with his role being more of an extra set of eyes and ears that his staff can confide in.
“I don’t want to get into guys’ mechanics very much. These are grown men who kind of know who they are at this point. I’m not here to change anybody. These guys know what it takes and I feel lucky to be with a staff like this; they’re kind of low maintenance. My job is to be an extra set of eyes, to be an extra set of ears for these guys, listen to these guys, and just watch them. If I see something then I’ll say something, but if it doesn’t work for you that’s great. Let’s work together on it.”
The results speak for themselves. The Wingnuts are third in the American Association in ERA (3.85) and opponent batting average (.250), and they are second in WHIP (1.24). They have also allowed the least number of walks this season.
However, the results are not just seen in the overall stats of the team. It is the individual successes that are visible as well. One such example is RHP Jordan Cooper. After posting a 3-6 record and a 4.58 ERA in Kansas City last season, Cooper is 2-0 with a 2.32 ERA this year in Wichita under Capra’s tutelage. That included a 20-inning scoreless streak to start the year. It has been an impressive turnaround, but not one the pitching coach is taking credit for.
“He is the one doing the work. I just wanted him to be himself. Sometimes that is all it takes, to get back to doing what you know you do well.”
Doing What He Does Best
If you ask any baseball player, they will honestly tell you that the difference between a single-A player and a Major Leaguer is not about talent; it is about the mental approach. The greater that your ability is to overcome struggles and to create more successes for yourself, the more likely you are to become a Major League ballplayer.
Anthony Capra did not reach that level, but he has learned a lot about how he stood in his own way to deny himself the kind of success that he could have had.
“I think everybody is generally their harshest critic, and I am not an exception to that. I talked to my AA pitching coach when he was coming through town and I asked him what did he see out of me. He told me the problem was that you care too much. You cared so much about your success in your career that you couldn’t filter all the other stuff out. That’s something that I recognize now and I wish I could have changed it. I should have spent a lot more time studying the game and that has been my commitment now. This is a game that is hard enough on its own; I want them to get out of their heads and enjoy playing.”
Now he is quite focused on the academics of the game, specifically the psychology of being successful. Understanding what it takes to get past a mental block, the Professor wants to be a resource that his pitchers can learn from and turn to when the game is starting to overwhelm them.
“If I see it, I can maybe get to a guy before it becomes a problem. I know a lot of guys don’t really want to talk to people, and if you don’t want to talk about it that’s fine, but when I was going through it there were so many people that wanted to help. Just finding out how to filter out good information from bad information is something that I had to learn early on. That is something I want to pass on here.”
While appreciating the great instruction that he has received over the years, Anthony has developed his own style of coaching. Not to find fault with others’ styles; he simply has his own.
“I want to be that set of eyes and ears for the guys, keep them consistent, make them comfortable. I think I’m a little bit unorthodox. I’m not an old-school pitching coach. I think there are a lot of things I disliked about pitching coaches throughout my career and I just want to be somebody that guys trust and are willing to talk to. They can look back and say, ‘Hey that guy helped me.’”
This season, Pete Rose, Jr. has basically turned the staff over to his pitching coach. Pete has never been one to focus on pitching and he trusts that Anthony will do a tremendous job with the Wingnuts pitchers.
“Cap is a guy I put a lot of trust in,” the Wingnuts Manager explained. “He is still learning a little on the job, but he knows what he is doing out there. I don’t have to worry about what is going on with the pitchers because he has earned their trust and knows how to get the most out of them.”
Getting the most out of the Wichita Wingnuts pitching staff is exactly what Anthony Capra is doing this season. The Wingnuts have won six straight division titles, five of those with Anthony pitching for the team. This season they are in prime position to win a seventh straight title with Capra as their pitching coach. Then the team will learn the greatest lesson of all – how to be a championship pitching staff.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA