For the last year and a half, Adam Wainwright has been singing the same tune after bad starts.
“My arm feels great. My body feels great. I know what adjustments I need to make. I’ll be back.” Cardinals fans have heard those lines from Uncle Charlie since his struggles began. For all of 2016, and most of this season, the idea of Wainwright returning to pre-achilles tear form seemed preposterous.
There have been games in which Wainwright looked like he should hang it up, like June 6 against Cincinnati (otherwise known as the Scooter Gennett game). At other times, he looked a lot like the Adam Wainwright of 2012-2015, like May 27 at Colorado. That day, he went seven shutout innings at Coors Field, and only gave up three hits.
Wainwright’s ERA is 5.20 going into Monday’s start in New York. But, if you take out the 24 runs allowed in 6 1/3 innings against Miami, Cincinnati, and Baltimore, his ERA would be 3.14. That would be top-ten in the NL, as Jose de Jesus Ortiz noted in the Post-Dispatch.
Why the wild discrepancy? I looked at each start Wainwright has made this season, and divided them into two groups: quality starts and non-quality starts.
The first thing I looked at was how often he throws each pitch, broken up by quality starts and non-quality starts.
There’s not much to see here. The only significant change is that Wainwright throws more four-seam fastballs in quality starts, but that’s offset by an increase in sinkers in non-quality starts. Either way, the variance isn’t enough to account for such a massive discrepancy in outcome.
If Wainwright isn’t mixing his pitches differently, maybe he just throws them harder (or slower) on certain days. Thanks to Brooks Baseball, took the average velocity of each of his pitches in every start. Then, I calculated the quality start average velocity and the non-quality start average velocity.
Again, not what I expected. Since Wainwright is a pitcher presumably in decline due to age, I didn’t expect to see him throwing harder in his bad outings. Wainwright has only thrown his four-seamer harder in quality starts than non-quality starts, and the difference was only 0.5 miles per hour. He’s thrown every other pitch harder in non-quality starts.
At this point, after many calculations, I was beginning to get discouraged.
On Brooks Baseball, if you click on a pitchers game log, it will show usage rates, strike percentages, average velocity, and max velocity. I didn’t intend to track max velocity, but I noticed something as I went along: it seemed like the difference between Wainwright’s average velocity and max velocity was greater in quality starts.
I know that’s a lot of numbers, but bear with me. The key columns are the two right-most. In quality starts, Wainwright has more velocity variance in every pitch except the four-seamer (I excluded the change from this analysis because he doesn’t throw it often enough).
I especially want to focus on the cutter and the curve, since up to June 22 opponents were hitting .286 against the curve and slugging .512 against the cutter.
In Wainwright’s last start against the Mets, his average cutter was 82.8 miles per hour. He also ran it up to 88.5 miles per hour. On that afternoon, hitters had to deal a pitch that moves a fair amount, but could also come at them at any speed within an eight to ten mile per hour range (if the average is 82.8, there had to have been some slower than that). In that same start, he threw his curve between 71.9 miles per hour and 76.5.
In his last four starts, it appears Wainwright has doubled down on changing speeds within the same pitch.
I looks like Wainwright has made an adjustment. It’s not a surprising one, as Wainwright is the type of pitcher that would alter the tempo of his delivery in order to disrupt the timing of the hitters. The league might adjust to him. However, if this is sustainable, Adam Wainwright might have found his way to continue pitching at a high level for several more years.
Thanks for reading.