The Opening Day torch has rightfully been passed from the 35-year-old Adam Wainwright to the 25-year-old Carlos Martinez. Yet, with two years left on his contract, at $19.5 million per year, Wainwright will still be expected to provide the Cardinals with a mid-rotation-level (aka #2 or #3), at worst, performance. Though he worked his way up to a respectable fWAR of 2.9 by the end of last season, Wainwright would be the first to say that 2016 was a bad season and below the level expected from him. Despite saying all of the right things when it comes to his repertoire, particularly his curveball but also his changeup, his spring training statistics haven’t looked too promising (22 hits, 7 walks, and only 9 strikeouts over 14.2 IP), with only tomorrow’s outing versus the Mets remaining. However, as we already know, spring training statistics don’t really matter.
With Opening Day now less than a week away and Wainwright slated for game two, I want to take one final spring training look at his repertoire, this time with a focus on a pitch he has thrown only 4.91% of the time in his career — the changeup. Writing about a pitch that is thrown less than 5% of the time is roughly equivalent to the discussion of which player should be the 25th man on a given roster (congratulations to Jose Martinez, by the way). In the end, it probably won’t matter all that much. That being said, if the pitch frequency increases, even slightly, then said discussion may just mean something after all. And as far as I can tell, Wainwright, more than any year before, has prioritized the development of his changeup this spring. Thus, I intend on taking a closer look at whether or not Wainwright should even continue with the pursuit of the changeup, something that has eluded him for the entirety of his 11-year MLB career.
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of the changeup, I find it most effective to first take a quick look at Wainwright’s other pitches. His plan of attack has been fairly simple as his primary “out pitches” are his curveball and his cutter. He goes to the sinker for ground balls, but he has utilized the pitch considerably less frequently in recent years (down to 27.09% last season versus career rate of 35.81%). While the curveball remains his most effective pitch, it flattened out a bit early in 2016. Fortunately, it remained steady in spin rate as his yearly average clocked in at 2,657 rpm, up slightly from 2015 when it averaged 2,609 rpm. For perspective, the MLB average spin rate for curveballs is 2,308 rpm.
Of all the pitches in his repertoire, the curveball appears the most resistant to age-related decline, while the fourseamer, sinker, and cutter are all affected by velocity decreases associated with increasing age. Speaking of the cutter, let’s take a closer look at how Wainwright located the pitch last season:
As you can see in the heatmap on the left, Wainwright did a terrific job locating the cutter versus right-handed hitters in 2016. Its core location (with a sample size of greater than 50 pitches) sits firmly on the outside corner, and if he missed, he tended to miss outward — completely avoiding the middle of the plate. This location helped lead to solid results as he limited opposing righties to a .232 batting average and an .070 isolated power against the pitch.
Conversely, Wainwright was much less effective at locating the cutter versus lefties as its core was a deviation higher than its core versus righties and one deviation inward toward the middle of the plate. Sure, it’s a pitch he can induce weak contact by getting in on the hands of lefties, but as you can see in the heatmap, Wainwright consistently missed the inside corner. Leaving 86 MPH cutter middle-in to lefties is not a desirable approach, and they took advantage of it last season, posting a .263 batting average and .178 isolated power against the pitch.
Further, using the Statcast search function on baseballsavant.com, I was able to determine that lefties essentially averaged a line-drive (launch angle of 10 to 25°) versus the pitch, posting an average launch angle of 12.8°. Of course, the 9.1° launch angle by righties isn’t much better, but it can certainly be the difference between the shortstop making the snag versus a liner in the gap. Yes, exit velocity matters as well, and as you can see in the table below, lefties posted an average exit velocity ~3 MPH slower than righties, but it’s still impossible to ignore a line-drive launch angle.
Batted ball events versus Adam’s Wainwright’s cutter
|Batter Type||Batted Ball Events||Launch Angle||Exit Velocity|
|Batter Type||Batted Ball Events||Launch Angle||Exit Velocity|
This is where the changeup comes into play. If you haven’t yet read J.J. Bailey’s article on the pitch (in which I linked to above, but will here as well), I strongly recommend you doing so. In the article, Wainwright talks about his toying between two changeup grips over the course of this career. He uses a split-finger grip which prioritizes downward movement and a traditional circle-change grip which prioritizes horizontal movement (think of Carlos Martinez’s changeup here). Sure enough, after going through each of Wainwright’s game logs from 2016 and looking at the PitchF/x details, I noticed that he did indeed flip between the two pitch grips. Some of the changeups exhibited only six inches of horizontal movement while others reached nearly 10 inches of arm-side movement. Vertically, some dropped only one inch as compared to a spinless ball while others dropped upwards of six inches.
Well, I’m here to throw my hat squarely into the circle-change ring as I truly believe it complements his repertoire most, particularly versus lefties. As we already saw in right-handed cutter heatmap embedded above, Wainwright possesses a pitch that dives away from righties (along with his curveball) and has benefited from it. He may already throw a pitch that dives away from lefties in the sinker, but it’s not used as a swing and miss pitch like the changeup would be. Fortunately for Wainwright, he already has a near perfect starting point on his changeup location versus lefties:
If he is able to stress horizontal movement by primarily using the circle-change grip, this heat map will become even more impressive as you’ll know the pitch is breaking across the face of home plate and diving away from lefties’ bats, instead of just tumbling downward. Repertoire deterioration is an unfortunate inevitability in pitchers, even the very best ones, and especially in those over the age of 35, but here’s to hoping Wainwright can finally gain comfort in a pitch that won’t be affected by age as much as some of the others he already throws, all while following a ball flight he doesn’t currently utilize to its full potential versus lefties. Frankly, while others have already given up on the former ace, I am not quite to that point just yet as the reported repertoire developments excite me. I am confident Wainwright has a couple #2/#3 years left in the tank.