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Documenting the slow start of Adam Wainwright

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Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

How soon is too soon to panic about Adam Wainwright? The red baron's conclusion? "Too early. But maybe not a lot too early." While the red baron already looked at and subsequently discussed Wainwright's BrooksBaseball.net player card in his post yesterday, I plan on providing my own thoughts on the subject matter as well. Through three starts in 2016, Wainwright has thrown 16.1 innings and accumulated an ERA and FIP of 8.27 and 4.88, respectively.

While three starts make up an incredibly small sample size, given Wainwright's opponents (other than the Pirates on Opening Day), there just may be some cause for concern regarding the 34-year-old ace, who is likely the third best starter in the current rotation (behind Jaime Garcia and Carlos Martinez). That being said, Wainwright does not seem too worried about his slow start in 2016 (publicly at least):

While it is definitely still early enough for Waino to "right the ship," let's take a closer look the PITCHf/x data surrounding his first three starts and see if there is anything, however minor, worth pointing out as something to look at going forward.

Post-Tommy John Velocity (MPH)

Year Fourseamer Sinker Cutter
2012 89.38 90.70 86.07
2013 92.08 91.60 88.60
2014 91.21 91.13 87.32
2015 90.93 90.84 86.96
2016 90.74 90.17 86.88

While technically Wainwright's velocity is down across the board on each of the three pitches in which velocity matters, it is not yet at a magnitude of difference in which opposing hitters will consistently notice the decline. Plus, given Wainwright's style of pitching, and the fact that he never really overpowered hitters, from a pure velocity standpoint, as a starter, the velocity, in its present state is more than adequate, given his ability to command corners. Obviously, if the first digit in his fourseamer and sinker creep down to the point where they are starting with an 8 as early as this season, we should start worrying, but at the same time, this is an inevitable path in the years to come. Again, given command, Wainwright should be able to pitch effectively with high-80's fastballs, but as long as his arm is as healthy as he says it is, this should not be an issue we have to address in 2016.

Fourseamer/Sinker/Cutter Location

As shown in the velocity table above, Wainwright does not possess a repertoire capable of consistently (and successfully) going "up the ladder." Averaging 90-91 MPH, his fourseamer and sinker will not blow too many professional hitters away. Yet, as you can see very clearly in the table below, Wainwright is visiting the middle plus upper two rows of the zone with his fourseamer, sinker, and cutter much more frequently in recent seasons, peaking thus far in 2016 (noting the small sample size of three total starts). For those curious about what I mean by "middle plus upper two rows," I included a BrooksBaseball.net heatmap below the table with the zone in question boxed in yellow.

2012 56.4%
2013 55.98%
2014 59.68%
2015 60.06%
2016 63.9%

Waino FB CUT SI

Pitchers with fastballs like Trevor Rosenthal's can get away with living up in the zone, but Wainwright, especially at his current stage of his career simply cannot. Again, small sample size considered, but hitters have been smacking Wainwright's fourseamers/sinkers/cutters all over the park so far this season. Wainwright may possess the best breaking ball on staff, but he can only throw it so much before hitters begin to sit on it. In order to be successful going forward, Wainwright must begin to command his fastballs, and ideally shift their respective locations downward. I do not intend on stealing any of the red baron's thunder from yesterday, but I wonder if Wainwright's lower release point over the years is a contributing factor in his pitches' vertical location, affecting his ability to get "on top of his pitches."

Sinker Dragless Horizontal Movement (inches)

Remember: Regarding horizontal movement in right-handed pitchers, a negative value means arm-side movement, whereas a positive value means glove-side movement.

2012 -9.84
2013 -10.42
2014 -10.49
2015 -11.44
2016 -8.98

The red baron already noted the difference in horizontal movement and probably rightfully played it off as a not that big of a deal, considering we have three starts worth of PITCHf/x data at present. That being said, for a pitcher heavily reliant on commanding corners and inducing weak, on-the-ground contact, Wainwright cannot afford to suffer through an extended period with less movement on his sinker. Horizontal movement, even more than velocity, is worth keeping a close eye on in a crafty, command-focused pitcher like Wainwright.

Bottom Line

Thus, I have come to the same conclusion as the red baron. While it is definitely too early to panic about Wainwright, I cannot ignore the warning signs. His velocity is declining, nearing an average in the high-80's. His vertical pitch location has been creeping up, all while his vertical release point has been creeping down. Finally, something that tends to be affected less, in an extremely small sample, Wainwright's sinker is experiencing noticeably less arm-side horizontal movement. While Wainwright is convinced he will "right the ship," I probably would not expect much more than #3 value out of Wainwright going forward.