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Adam Wainwright's flattened curveball

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Adam Wainwright has fought through an interesting 2016 season thus far. Let's take a look at how his curveball has performed compared to previous seasons.

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 season has been anything but smooth for St. Louis Cardinals Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright. While he has certainly improved from his slow start, largely through a few changes in fastball location, he is not quite to the point where he is widely considered "dangerous again," a level he predicted he would soon be at back in mid-May. Now, by fWAR, Wainwright has essentially provided equal production (1.6) to three of his rotation mates (Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia, and Carlos Martinez), and has been significantly more valuable than the last member of the rotation, Mike Leake (0.5).

Thus, keeping respective staff fWAR in mind, we probably should not complain too much about Wainwright's performance up to this point in 2016. We must also not forget that he turns 35 years old in August and that he suffered a serious, nearly-season-ending injury last season. That being said, Wainwright has been named to three All-Star teams and has finished in the top three of National League Cy Young Award voting four times, so it is not unreasonable to expect more from the five-time Opening Day starter. There was a time, not too long ago, either, where he seemingly averaged seven innings and two maybe three earned runs per start. Now, we are ecstatic when a start like this occurs (Wainwright has gone seven innings with two earned runs or fewer only twice in 16 starts).

So, what is going on with Wainwright? Honestly, much of the inconsistency can be attributed to the fact that he just is not commanding his fastballs (fourseamer and sinker) and cutter like he used to. If you remember back to the years in which he finished in the top three of Cy Young Award voting (2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014), he could, with his eyes blindfolded, paint corners in and out versus both types of hitters. He was consistently breaking left-handed bats with his inward-breaking cutter and fooling these same hitters with sinkers that started out at their respective front knees only to tail over the inside corner, at the last millisecond, for strike three.

But, as his Twitter handle suggests (@UncleCharlie50), Wainwright is known for his curveball. Over the offseason, we, as a community, voted that Wainwright possessed the best breaking ball on the entire Cardinals' staff. And from a results standpoint (.216 batting average and .285 slugging against), the curveball has actually been his most effective pitch so far this season. However, individual pitch results can be deceiving and downright murky because they only take into account the last pitch of an at bat. Because it has been a while since my last post (Italy was amazing, by the way), bear with me as I go off on a brief tangent in an attempt to explain why I feel comfortable calling individual pitch results deceiving.

Sometimes, the first pitch of an at bat is the most important (and if you have read Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights in August, you already know this). Sometimes, the most important is the third, fourth, or even fifth pitch. Just last night, we saw the unofficial closer Seung Hwan Oh put out his own ninth-inning fire by forcing a ground out (Mike Matheny's infield shift was absolutely perfect, by the way) of Eric Hosmer. That at-bat-ending pitch was a riding 94 MPH fastball (and subsequently will get credit for an 0 for 1 in the individual pitch results tab on BrooksBaseball.net), but not many would argue that the most important pitch of this bases-loaded matchup was the pitch immediately prior, an 81 MPH changeup (or splitter, if that's what you prefer to call it) down, below the zone that led to a mighty swing and miss from Hosmer for strike two.

Using the Oh-Hosmer matchup as an example, we can now understand how a pitch can create value by setting up the following pitch or by working off a pitch earlier in the at bat (in Oh's case, he started Hosmer off with three straight fastballs, so pulling the string on a changeup, after a visit from Yadier Molina I must add, resulted in a perfect sequence and a desirable result). At this time, this value simply cannot be adequately quantified and thus cannot be reinforced by looking solely at the results of batting average or slugging percentage. As I return to the discussion of Wainwright's 2016 curveball (and how despite generally positive results, it has not been where it needs to be), I hope to have explained that while not completely useless, individual pitch results should not be considered the gold standard for determining pitch effectiveness. If each at bat lasted one pitch, this would be very different, but this is obviously not the case.

Before getting into a few PitchF/x-related details, let's first look at Wainwright's curveball peripherals over the years:

Curveball Peripherals, 2010-2016 (Reminder: Wainwright missed all of 2011 due to Tommy John)

Whiffs/Swing: Swings in which no contact is made (aka "Whiff") / Total swings

O-Swing%: Swings at pitches outside the zone / Pitches outside the zone

Z-Contact%: Pitches on which contact was made on pitches inside the zone / Swings on pitches inside the zone

For mobile device viewing

Ideally, we would like to see the Whiffs/swing and O-Swing% lines go up and the Z-Contact% line go down. However, Wainwright is trending in the wrong direction in each of these categories -- in fact, he currently stands at career worsts in each one as well. More whiffs mean more guaranteed strikes, more swings on pitches out of the zone will usually lead to either more whiffs or at the very least, weak contact, and less contact on pitches in the strike zone means that hitters are probably having a tough time reading the pitch. Yet, none of these are occurring in 2016, and considering the fact that the pitch's usage is on par with previous years (~29%), it is not unreasonable to believe that hitters have not been consistently deceived by the "Uncle Charlie" this season. So, then, what has been different this season?

Average Dragless Vertical and Horizontal Movement (via BrooksBaseball.net)

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

Year Horizontal Movement (Inches) Vertical Movement + Gravity (Inches)
2010* 15.75 -59.25
2012 16.34 -60.45
2013* 15.22 -57.98
2014* 15.58 -58.93
2015 16.11 -58.34
2016 16.64 -58.42

*Cy Young Award Finalist

While the difference may be subtle (less than an inch in most cases), Wainwright's Uncle Charlie, though it has always displayed two-plane (up-and-down, right-to-left) break, is at its best when it prioritizes up-and-down movement over side-to-side movement. By no surprise, when Wainwright was a Cy Young Award finalist in 2010, 2013, and 2014, his curveball exhibited the least amount of horizontal movement. Sure, the third column of the table shows that this did not necessarily lead to more vertical drop, but the fact is that the pitch did a better job at following a 12-6 path (using the numbers and hands on a analog clock), instead of a more "slurvy" 11-7 path.

Well, so far in 2016, Wainwright has experienced more horizontal movement than he ever has on his curveball, leaving the pitch susceptible to being hung up in the zone (in fact, its average vertical location is higher than it's ever been) and being characterized as "flat" (hence, the title of this post). If he was intentionally throwing the pitch a tick harder, more horizontal movement wouldn't necessarily be viewed as a problem, but he isn't as the pitch remains in the usual 74-76 MPH range.

Let's now take a look at two curveball GIFs, one from this season and one from last season, courtesy of the always-generous Nick Pollack of PitcherList.com:

Curveball Versus Willson Contreras on June 21, 2016 (BrooksBaseball At Bat)

This pitch is a perfect example of "bad process, good outcome ." The pitch resulted in an inning-ending double play, but it was clearly hung out over the plate, and should Contreras have waited back and taken it to right field (and potentially into the corner), Ben Zobrist, not a slow runner on first, could have scored to tie the game at four. Unfortunately, curveballs like the one above have become all too common this season. Ideally, with a mechanical tweak or two (with his primary focus being on vertical release point), Wainwright can return to more up-and-down curveballs like the devastating one below:

Curveball Versus Cameron Maybin on October 4, 2015 (BrooksBaseball At Bat)

This pitch starts a shade above Maybin's belt and drops nearly all the way down to the dirt behind home plate.

Bottom Line

Over the course of an 11-year MLB career, Wainwright has seemingly tinkered with each one of his pitches at least once. If Waino continues to throw his curveball as much as he has been (he will), I hope he and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist notice the need to tinker once again in order to get less horizontal movement going forward because, after all, he reaches peak performance when his curveball is going down.

As always, credit to BrooksBaseball.net for PitchF/x data and PitcherList.com for the GIFs.