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On spring training repertoire developments

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Adam Wainwright and Luke Weaver are focused on repertoire modifications this spring. Will these changes ultimately materialize for regular-season use?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals-Workouts Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Year after year after year, like it or not, spring training remains a cliché-ridden spectacle. While the return of live baseball is undeniably exciting, it is hard to take the majority of what is reported at face value. This player is in the “best shape of his life.” This player intends on stealing 20+ bases this season (for a team that mustered a total of 35 all of last season). This pitcher is focused on developing a new pitch (or two). This player changed his batting stance, and after tireless work over the offseason, this could finally be his breakout year at the plate.

On the surface, all of these reports sound like welcome developments. However, the surface is all we have at this point considering live games have just now started. Pitching is much easier without a batter (i.e. bullpens), and you don’t learn too much from the crushing of batting practice fastballs. Heck, once live games do begin to pick up, outside of the first few innings, the opponents are not usually of full MLB quality. Split-squad games plus those games requiring long(ish) bus trips play a role in watering down lineups as well. Regardless, we are two days away from March meaning regular-season baseball is just around the corner, and considering just how long this offseason has felt, this makes me very happy.

And as I tend to frequently do on these pages, I plan on dissecting the reported repertoire developments of two starting pitchers on the St. Louis Cardinals: Adam Wainwright and Luke Weaver. Before providing my take, I am obliged to link to the original sources of the respective repertoire developments. J.J. Bailey, of KMOV, wrote a piece titled, “Wainwright seeking change once again in 2017,” and Jenifer Langosch, of MLB.com, published, “Weaver focused on expanding his repertoire.” As usual, both articles are of must-read quality.

With Wainwright being a lock for the starting rotation (and with Mike Matheny at the helm, he has a real chance at starting on Opening Night), let’s start with his repertoire modification. Prior to Bailey’s report, I had noticed in a spring training photo (by Chris Lee of STLToday.com) that Waino was using a different changeup grip from what we had seen in year’s past:

As you can see very clearly when positioned side-by-side, Waino, in 2016, deployed more of a split-finger changeup as compared to the more common circle change this spring. What I did not know prior to reading Bailey’s article is Wainwright, depending on his feel that day, has actually cycled between the two pitch grips throughout his career. Yet, for a pitch he has thrown less than 5% of the time since the beginning of 2007, such ignorance is acceptable, in my opinion. Regardless, let’s take a closer look at Wainwright’s pitch mix last season, 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.

Adam Wainwright repertoire, 2016

Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (MPH) Dragless Horizontal Mov. (in.)
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (MPH) Dragless Horizontal Mov. (in.)
Fourseamer 14.40% 90.78 -3.2
Sinker 27.09% 90.9 -10.98
Changeup 2.27% 82.89 -10.63
Curveball 26.74% 74.52 16.53
Cutter 29.46% 85.74 5.69

From both a velocity and horizontal movement standpoint, a circle change — which stresses arm-side run over vertical drop (think of Carlos Martinez’s changeup to Pedro Alvarez) — slots into Wainwright’s repertoire perfectly. It provides him with a slower-than-his-cutter, but faster-than-his-curveball option along with a horizontal movement running away from the bats of left-handed hitters. Sure, the “Uncle Charlie” will always induce a fair amount of swings and misses — regardless of batter handedness — but it is a fact that the rest of Wainwright’s repertoire lacks that swing-and-miss quality versus lefties.

In an ideal world, the changeup could fill that void going forward, but he must first gain the necessary comfort and confidence in throwing it — two things that have eluded him over the years. Frankly, it probably wouldn’t be considered an official spring training if the Wagon Maker wasn’t toying with his repertoire in some way. Considering the cutter isn’t going anywhere, it appears the changeup seems to be Waino’s 2017 modification. Regardless, I’m not getting too excited about the pitch just yet because as you may recall, prior to the 2015 season, Lance Lynn was throwing a “filthy” changeup to his teammates in spring training. It ended up being a pitch he turned to only 3.11% of the time that season.

Moving from the 35-year-old Wainwright to the 23-year-old Weaver, the knock on the second-year player has always been his lack of a true third pitch. His ability to command both a mid-90’s fastball and above-average changeup is evident, but without a third pitch (combined with a slight build and potentially worrisome mechanics), some view him as a future reliever. In fact, this is the main reason ESPN’s Keith Law did not include Weaver in his top 100 prospect list despite Weaver’s inclusion in nearly every other publication’s top 100 prospect list this offseason.

Well, according to Langosch’s report, Weaver is working both a sinker and slider into his pitch mix this spring. Even if the sinker becomes an effective pitch for him, it’s not technically considered a “third pitch” since it is so close in velocity to his fourseamer. Thus, the real news here is the supposed incorporation of a slider (I missed his start, so I was not able to check in on its progress).

As you know, Weaver’s third pitch upon his promotion last season was a cutter. While the cutter can be a good pitch, it’s not really known as a swing-and-miss pitch, and from a PitchF/x standpoint, I don’t believe it differentiates enough from his top two pitches to really allow Weaver to reach his ceiling. Instead, his approach to MLB hitters could be made easier by deploying a slower, more sweeping slider. Of course, it is much more difficult than just saying “okay, let’s make it happen,” especially considering, as Law already noted, Weaver has never really thrown a true breaking ball, not even in college. But it is definitely something worth following because with Alex Reyes out for the season, Weaver will be given plenty of opportunities in the MLB starting rotation, even if he doesn’t open the season in that role.

Check back for updates as spring progresses.