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What went wrong in Adam Wainwright’s rough first start?

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Key takeaways from the veteran’s uninspiring home opener

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

On a night typically associated with much jubilation and fanfare, a Busch Stadium crowd of 46,512 had little to cheer for during Thursday’s home opener. According to the Baseball Reference play index, the Cardinals have never won a game with double-digit strikeouts and fewer than three hits. So when Arizona carved up St. Louis’ lineup for 13 punch outs while limiting them to just two hits, 5.1 scoreless innings from the Cardinals’ bullpen became a moot point in an eventual 3-1 defeat.

Of course, it was only a rocky outing from Adam Wainwright that forced Mike Matheny to turn to his bullpen for the final 16 outs. Fresh off the disabled list to make his season debut, the Diamondbacks shelled Wainwright for three runs on four hits and four walks before chasing him in the fourth inning.

Perhaps Wainwright’s poor start was merely the byproduct of him not utilizing a minor league rehab assignment before returning to the majors. However, his deteriorating stuff has been well-documented for a while now. As Aaron Schafer said of Wainwright in his post yesterday:

For me, the bigger concern has to be Adam Wainwright, who has admittedly only made one start, but really did nothing in that start to allay my own fears that he’s just not a major league pitcher anymore, or at least not a major league starter. Don’t get me wrong; Waino navigated his way through the Arizona lineup without getting torched, and maybe that’s good enough. But he failed to complete four innings, walked four hitters, and needed 90 pitches to even get that far [...] how long can the Cardinals continue to run Adam Wainwright out if what we saw in his home opener start is just...all there is now?

So let’s begin right there, with what exactly we did see in his home opener start. The word ‘untrained’ doesn’t come close to describing my amateur scouting eye, but even I immediately noticed Wainwright’s fading velocity as the game progressed. What follows is his average fastball velocity from all four innings. See if you can spot the pattern.

  1. 91.78 mph
  2. 90.09 mph
  3. 88.34 mph
  4. 87.75 mph

At the expense of being redundant, here is essentially the same information displayed in chart form, this time looking at Wainwright’s rolling fastball velocity from throughout the game.

Shortly after the game concluded, Matheny and Wainwright produced the alibi that the righty’s decrease in velocity was an attempt to harness his control. Personally, I don’t buy what the Cardinals are selling here. We all saw Wainwright’s arm give out on him last August when he posted a 7.36 ERA and 7.79 FIP before landing on the disabled list with a right elbow impingement. He also underwent surgery to remedy a lingering bone bruise to his right elbow last offseason. If Wainwright’s body isn’t capable of starting MLB games anymore, the radar gun isn’t going to keep that a secret for long.

It wasn’t just the declining velocity that jumped off the page, either. Wainwright has historically used his 6′ 7″ stature to his advantage by releasing the ball higher off the mound, developing a downward plane to his pitches as they travel towards home plate. That wasn’t the case in his first start of 2018, as evidenced by drastic drop-offs in the vertical release points of his five pitches tracked by BrooksBaseball.net.

Wainwright’s vertical release points have been on a noticeable downward trend since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2012. Yet after a slight uptick last season, he experienced a drop unlike any other in his career (0.63 feet, or 7.56 inches) on his fourseam fastball between 2017 and 2018.

Not only has Wainwright’s height advantage been neutralized, but so has his overall deception coming out of the hand. Note how four of his five pitches were clustered in relatively similar arm slots over the years. Fast forward to the new year, where the curveball’s release point now sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to Wainwright’s other pitches.

These flaws were perfectly exploited by Diamondbacks outfielder David Peralta, a career 115 wRC+ hitter, who led the charge for Arizona by reaching base all three times he faced Wainwright.

Plate appearance #1: Seven-pitch walk (BrooksBaseball Data)

As the 2018 season at Busch Stadium got underway, the game plan against the leadoff hitter couldn’t be more clear: attack Peralta away.

BrooksBaseball.net

After his fastball missed just off the plate twice in a row, Wainwright recovered to force a full count before losing Peralta on another fourseamer. Contrast where Yadier Molina initially sets his glove (the down-and-in corner) with where Wainwright’s pitch ultimately ends (up-and-away for ball four).

Plate appearance #2: Two-pitch single (BrooksBaseball Data)

After taking a curveball for a strike his first time up, Peralta bites at a first pitch breaking ball to give Wainwright the 0-1 edge in the count. Having seen both pitches multiple times now, this could have been the moment when Peralta began to discern the differing fastball and curveball release points. Wainwright doesn’t do himself any favors when a fastball intended to bust Peralta inside catches too much of the plate for an RBI single whacked 100.9 mph.

Plate appearance #3: Five-pitch double (BrooksBaseball Data)

According to Statcast, this double had a higher exit velocity (114.8 mph) than any of Peralta’s 434 batted balls from a year ago. Peralta begins the at-bat by laying off another Wainwright curveball, this one in the dirt to bring the count to 1-0.

Later ahead in the count, 1-2, Wainwright follows up a second curveball with a fastball that drifts even further outside than the up-and-away ball four from the first plate appearance. With fatigue setting in and his fastball velocity wearing down, Wainwright misses his target on a 2-2 delivery that gets lined for a run-scoring double.

The two pitches prior to the double were a curveball and fourseamer, whose release points strayed apart by 0.27 feet horizontally and 0.39 feet vertically, or 3.24 and 4.68 inches, respectively. It is definitely plausible that the Diamondbacks may have picked up on this arm slot discrepancy during their second and third trips through the order.

Adam Wainwright was never a pitcher who overpowered opposing batters with a blistering fastball. However, he needs to master the art of throwing hitters off balance now more than ever before. One should never overreact to a single bad start, but Wainwright’s velocity continuously fell from beginning to end, he exhibited a lack of fastball command, and his lowered arm slot served as a detriment to his already feeble pitch tunneling ability.

Regarding Wainwright’s bout with variant release points, one could speculate that the lower arm slot is an attempt to reduce stress on his arm. Either way, Wainwright simply may not have the endurance to retain his spot in the starting rotation. Assuming he doesn’t need to return to the disabled list, a transition to the bullpen could be beneficial to both Wainwright’s durability and pitch sequencing prowess.

Between the MLB and AAA level, Jack Flaherty’s 2018 stat line reads: 2 starts, 12 innings, 0.28 FIP, 20 K, 1 BB. A small sample size, yes, but the Cardinals’ depth gives them leeway to yank Wainwright from the rotation as the club sees fit. As much as it pains me to say this, Wainwright’s days starting games for the Cardinals could very well be numbered if the issues that plagued him in his opening act go unresolved.