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Adam Wainwright’s Curveball is Evolving Again

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Wainwright’s signature pitch has changed for the third time

St. Louis Cardinals v Chicago White Sox Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

Few pitchers in Cardinals history are as tightly associated with a single pitch as Adam Wainwright is with his curveball. Bob Gibson was known for his vicious fastball, though his equally effective slider means the fastball may not have even been his best pitch. Bruce Sutter was one of the league’s premier closers thanks to his split-finger fastball. There are others, but the point is made. When you think of Adam Wainwright, you think of the curveball. It’s the pitch that posterized Carlos Beltran and etched Wainwright’s name into Cardinal history. That was 14 years ago. One of the more underrated aspects of Wainwright’s curveball is that it hasn’t been the same pitch throughout his career. Now, it’s changing again.

We can use Brooks Baseball to prove the point. Here’s his vertical and horizontal curveball movement plotted by year, courtesy of Brooks Baseball (with some design-y elbow grease that I’ve added).

Data from 2006 is unavailable, but we can see that there are three distinct phases of the Adam Wainwright curveball.

  • Phase one happened very early in his career. He produced much less horizontal movement. It was more of the classic 12-to-6 curveball.
  • Phase two started in 2009. It got a little less sink but featured more horizontal break. He held on to that horizontal break for nine seasons. The vertical movement bobbed up and down, sometimes greater and sometimes lesser than the shape of his 2007-2008 curveball, but the highlight was the enhanced horizontal break.
  • Phase three happened in the two most recent seasons, when his horizontal break increased yet again. By the time 2018 rolled around, he had added 4 full inches of horizontal break compared to 2007. Granted, he only pitched 40 innings that season, but it was clearly a different pitch. On the other hand, his vertical break in 2019 was the second shallowest of his career.

This brings us to 2020. In his first two starts, his curveball slipped back to the typical horizontal break that he had from 2009 through 2017. However, his vertical break is the largest he’s shown in his career, at least if we go by Brooks Baseball and omit gravity. Let’s use some examples. This is a fairly typical curveball from last season during phase 3 of his curveball evolution:

Now let’s take a look at what he’s throwing this year so far. Here’s a beauty he used to strike out Luis Robert last weekend:

Different, yes? His horizontal break in 2020 is right in line with phase 2 (2009-2017). His vertical break before Thursday’s start, on the other hand, is the most of his career (again, before we introduce gravity as Statcast does). It’s a new evolution for him, sacrificing some of the horizontal life he’d found, but with a heavier hammer more reminiscent of his first years in the league.

From 2007-2015, Wainwright had a game with an average vertical drop of 9.5 inches or more 68 times in 222 appearances. Then from 2016 through 2019, a span of four seasons and 98 appearances, he only did it four times. Three of those were in April and May of 2016. He’s already done it twice this season, and this data doesn’t include his Thursday start.

In other words, even though it’s a small sample, it’s significantly different from the curveball he’s thrown for several years. The velocity also tells a story. Here’s his average curveball velocity by year, but without me fancying up Brooks Baseball’s graph:

Oddly enough given his age, the velocity is most reminiscent of 2007-2008, his earliest (recorded) years in the league. Piecing all of it together, he’s throwing the vintage Waino curveball, but with an inch or two more of horizontal break.

He has created this new(ish) curveball by moving his vertical and horizontal release points up. They were at their lowest point in 2018 and 2019. It’s obviously early, but the results are good. His Whiff% on the pitch so far (before Thursday) is 30%, his second best since 2016. His PutAway% is 40%. He’s never finished a season over 30% with his curveball. Again, it’s two games, but that’s encouraging. He’s only given up a .286 SLG on the pitch. That’s the good news. The bad news is that his xSLG is much higher- .485, the highest of his career. He’s apparently had some luck with the pitch so far.

It gets interesting when trying to determine whether or not it’s worth sacrificing horizontal movement for vertical. Last year, his horizontal break vs. average was fourth largest in the league, while his vertical break was decidedly mediocre. He’s still near the top so far in horizontal break this season, though less so, while his vertical break is still fairly mediocre. (side note: Alex Reyes’ curveball looks ridiculous and devastating)

We’re early in what will be a short season, but Wainwright reinventing his signature pitch yet again is a development to follow.