Adam Wainwright and the art of the set-up pitch

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

The pitch immediately prior to the put-away pitch is obviously very important, and with five different pitches, Wainwright has a lot of options. Just how good is Wainwright at pitching? Let's take a look.

Through 17 starts in 2014, Adam Wainwright has tallied 106 strikeouts—the eighth most in the National League. As we know, the final pitch of a strikeout is very important and is usually the pitch seen on highlight reels, but what about the set-up pitch? Isn't the set-up pitch just as important as the pitch that actually got the strikeout? Well, considering Wainwright is known for having solid command with all five of his pitches, I figured he was an ideal candidate for the topic.

If you care to look at my manual data collection, a scanned image of it can be found here. As you will see, I plotted the pitch type, velocity, and location of the final two pitches of 76 Wainwright strikeouts in 2014. I did not plot all 106 because I excluded strikeouts to pitchers (in my opinion, pitchers have a different approach when facing the opposing pitcher), some at-bats had data glitches (i.e. one of the final two pitches did not show up on the BrooksBaseball chart of the AB [usually means the pitch was in the dirt, but I cannot know for sure]), and finally, I just did not have the time to get around to some of his more recent starts.

With five different pitches in his arsenal, I believe (my elementary school math may be wrong) Wainwright can deploy 25 unique two-pitch sequences (i.e. CUT-CB, CB-CUT, CB-CB, etc.). When you think about it, that really makes hitting sound quite difficult, especially when a pitcher has command of all five pitches like Wainwright. Thus, a pitcher can either throw the same pitch back-to-back or use the preceding pitch to "set up" the strikeout. There are two main reasons behind throwing a put-away pitch that is different from the set-up pitch: a change in velocity (to keep the hitter off-balance) and/or a change in pitch location (to alter the hitter's eye level).

Here is a graphic representation of the top 11 two-pitch sequences Wainwright has used in strikeouts this season:

If you are reading on an iPhone or other mobile phone, follow this link for a clearer look at the infographic.

Not surprisingly, his top three combinations include his most-used (56% combined usage) and most-effective pitches—his curveball and his cutter. His curveball, which he throws 26% of the time, was used in 71% (54 out of 76) of the strikeouts. His cutter was used in 49% (37 out of 76) of the strikeouts. On the other end of the spectrum, he has used his changeup in the final two pitches of just one strikeout, as a set-up to one of his many curveballs in the dirt. Considering he has thrown only 24 changeups all season, this is not all that surprising.

On eleven occasions (14%), Wainwright used the same pitch for both the set-up and put-away pitches. Nine of these eleven included a curveball-curveball combination. Considering he has one of the top curveballs in the game, this is not much of a surprise. Speaking of his curveball, he used it as the put-away pitch 34 times (45%), and twenty-two of these curveballs were low and out of the zone, often in the dirt. This is a testament to just how dirty Waino's curve really is.

As we know, all five of Wainwright's pitches have differing velocities (his fastball and sinker are pretty close, though), and he often makes in-game velocity adjustments based on how he's feeling or how the hitter is looking. Well, excluding the eleven instances in which he used the same pitch for both the set-up and put-away, Wainwright went from faster to slower 33 times and from slower to faster 32 times. This, again, shows the craftiness and skill of Wainwright. With how devastating his curveball is to hitters, one would think he would go from "faster to slower" at a much higher percentage than "slower to faster," but the numbers show that this is not the case, largely because he used his curveball as a set-up pitch on 19 separate occasions.

Enough about velocity, what about pitch location from Wainwright? Altering a hitter's eye-level with a set-up pitch has been one of the tactics used by pitchers since the day baseball was created, especially before the incorporation of breaking pitches. Thus, I cut the zone into four equal quadrants when classifying whether or not the set-up pitch was in the "same zone" as the put-away pitch. Yes, I could have broken it down into more zones, but the average human eye (Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn, excluded) does not have the ability, in roughly one-tenth of a second, to break down a strike zone into much more depth.

For the location component of this post, I excluded all nine occasions where Wainwright went with the dreaded curveball-curveball combination. In order for a curveball to be successful on a consistent basis at the major league level, it needs to be low in the zone. As discussed earlier, Wainwright is pretty darn successful with his curveball, and more often than not, it is low in (and often out of) the zone.

This left me with 67 strikeouts where I could analyze the location of the set-up pitch compare to the put-away pitch. Unfortunately, I made a charting error on one of the strikeouts, so the final count was actually 66. At this point in the analysis, I was still questioning my decision of dividing the zone up into four pretty large quadrants. A pitch at the top left of a quadrant was very different from a pitch at the bottom right of that same quadrant, but with my classification system, they would go down as virtually the same location. I honestly thought this would have a negative impact on the final numbers. However, Wainwright never ceases to amaze. Despite having this slight hurdle in my flawed classification system, Wainwright's put-away pitch was in a different location than the set-up pitch 77% of the time (51 out of 66). That is absolutely unbelievable.

Wainwright has some of the best stuff in the majors, and yet, the craftiness and command he possesses is what puts him in the NL Cy Young conversation every single season. Sure, many people point to his devastating curveball for his continued success, but as I just showed in this post, his ability to avoid trends with velocity changes (aka "faster to slower" is roughly equal to "slower to faster") while also changing hitters' eye levels (77% of his put-away pitches in a different quadrant from set-up pitches) is unparalleled.

Is this the year Wainwright finally takes home the NL Cy Young Award?

Credit to BrooksBaseball for the PITCHF/x data used in this post.

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