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St. Louis Cardinals: Analyzing Adam Wainwright’s Curveball

Adam Wainwright first inning struggles

In January, after he was the 22nd pitcher taken overall in a Sirius XM fantasy draft, Adam Wainwright called in to the show.

“That’s laughable,” he said. “If these are so-called experts doing this draft, I’d say maybe start looking for a new occupation.”

Well as it turns out, Adam Wainwright was right. Unfortunately, he was drastically overrated by the “experts.” He would go on to rank 84th in ESPN’s fantasy baseball Player Rater. He disappointed fantasy owners, fans, and the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was a terrible statistical year for Adam Wainwright. His 4.62 ERA and 3.93 FIP were his worsts over a full season. He gave up walks and homers at a higher rate than he ever had in his career.

At the heart of his struggles: his most reliable weapon, his curveball, (for which he earns the @UncleCharlie50 Twitter handle) was no longer, well, reliable.

Batters earned hits off it 32.7% more than they had in any season since 2010. Their OPS off the curve was 35.4% higher than his previous career high. Hitters squared it up for line drives at a higher rate and struck out against it at a lower rate than they ever had. They chased less and whiffed less, even though Wainwright threw curveballs for strikes at a similar rate to his career average. See for yourself:

St. Louis Cardinals

Following, I examine a few possibilities which might explain the struggles he had with the pitch in 2016. I exclude 2015, since Wainwright’s Achilles injury made the sample size too small.

The Curveball Was Flat

This is an explanation which Viva el Birdos suggested back in June. Their suggestion then was that Adam Wainwright’s curveball is at its best when it takes a more 12-6 shape than 11-7 path. This has been at least relatively true every year since 2010, although hitters were simply bad against the pitch in every year before 2016.

St. Louis Cardinals

Wainwright’s curveball did look more like an 11-7 spinner than a 12-6 hammer in 2016. It had the most right-to-left movement (from the pitcher’s viewpoint) and second least vertical movement of any season since 2010. This could happen as the result of a change in grip or arm slot. Looking at Wainwright’s vertical and horizontal release points for his curveball, it appears the latter is the culprit.

St. Louis Cardinals

Wainwright released his curveball at the lowest point vertically in his career. While his horizontal release point was similar to his 2010 to 2013 slot, it was still the second farthest to his arm-side of his career. The result: a curveball that moved about one inch more horizontally and one inch less vertically.

One inch horizontally doesn’t mean much. While the sweet spot is only a few inches, a hitter has (very conservatively) five inches to square the ball up and make solid contact. One inch here is only a 20% difference. Vertically, one inch makes a much bigger impact. The barrel is 2.61 inches at its widest, so one inch here means a 38.3% difference.

Wainwright’s curveball is most effective when it changes plane vertically. In 2016, Wainwright struggled to get on top of the pitch, and the result was a less vertically-oriented curve.

Fastball Complement and Location

Adam Wainwright struggled with his command in 2016, and the result was that all his pitches were less effective. A curveball of any shape is best when located well complemented with a strong fastball, and Wainwright struggled with both of these facets last season.

I combined Pitchf/x data including Wainwright’s four-seam, cutter, and sinker into one “fastball” category.

St. Louis Cardinals

As with the curve, 2016 was by fair Waino’s worst season with the fastball. Hitter’s knocked it around for a better average and more power than they ever had. Velocity did not appear to be an issue, as the average speed for each pitch was near his career average velocities. Neither horizontal or vertical movement were a problem.

Fastball location definitely was. Below are the location heat maps for Adam Wainwright’s career, 2016, and my arbitrarily defined best season, 2014. Wainwright missed with these pitches a lot in 2016, meaning that he was likely falling into hitters counts more often and giving batters better pitches to hit.

St. Louis CardinalsSt. Louis CardinalsSt. Louis Cardinals

The four-seamer was at its best when focused within the upper-left of the zone and above. In 2016, the four-seamer’s location was all over the plate. This meant more fastballs werein better places for hitters to drive. It also missed outside the zone more often.

His cutter was best when Wainwright pounded the left edge of the strike zone, like in 2014. While there was still a clear focus on the left side last season, Wainwright missed the zone more often. Additionally, he missed it by a lot more than he ever had, as shown by the frequency with which he hit the outside bottom-left corner and outside left edge.

Wainwright’s sinker in 2016 actually matched his career heat map fairly well. However, he did miss right more often than normal. Additionally, the pitch was better when he focused it on the left side of the plate like in 2014.

The struggles with location also affected Wainwright’s curveball:

St. Louis Cardinals

Wainwright’s signature pitch has been best when pounded low in the middle of the zone, with a large percentage buried in the dirt. These pitches look like taters to the hitter before they dart below their bat. As the heat map shows, Wainwright was less precise with the pitch in 2016. Additionally, he left a high percentage of hangers up in the zone. The result was his worst season with the pitch in his career.

Fortunately, velocity and overall movement do not appear to be an issue for Wainwright, which are good indicators that he can bounce back. This likely means his poor season was due to worse execution and not necessarily declining ability. However, given the “flattening” of his curveball and his lack of control, it appears a mechanical tweak is in order. Hopefully he noticed before I did.

Thanks for reading. Follow me on Twitter @zjgifford and join the conversation.

Credit to FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball for stats and data.



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