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How Adam Wainwright Revitalized His Career

Amidst Cardinals players hitting the IL left and right, Adam Wainwright has affirmed his place squarely as the Cards #2 starter. This development, and trust by the St. Louis front office, is critical for the Redbirds winning ballgames down the line. Wainwright looked like he might've ended his career in 2017 after multiple injuries and an ERA over 5.00, but his competitiveness kept him going and this late resurgence is quite the spectacle for the almost 40-year-old. As of July 28, Wainwright holds a 3.51 ERA, 3.92 FIP, and a 16.5 K-BB% while being a lock in the Cardinals rotation. He has not given up more than 4 runs since May 15 in San Diego and is frequently working into and beyond the 6th inning, which is much needed for the thin St. Louis bullpen.

How has Waino succeeded this year? He's trusting his pitch mix and commanding the zone like he once had earlier in his career. The biggest change for Wainwright was after his horrendous 2017 season, when he spiked his curveball usage in place of his 4-seam fastball. Since that change, Wainwright has only gotten better as he is learning how to adapt to being a curveball-first pitcher. While he is still throwing a plethora of fastball pitches (sinker, cutter, and 4-seam), the reliance on the curveball is what is defining Adam Wainwright.

Pitch Type

2017 Usage%

2018 Usage%

4-Seam Fastball

19.2%

9.1%

Sinker

26.7%

26.8%

Cutter

23.5%

21.0%

Curveball

26.1%

35.8%

Changeup

4.1%

5.7%

As seen above, Wainwright increases the use of his curveball by about 10% while dropping his 4-seam usage by about 10% as well. Wainwright's curveball has always been his best pitch and digging deeper with it was critical for prolonging his career. Rather than using his fastball in 0-0 counts, which had a .385 wOBA against it in 2017, he was able to use his curveball alongside the cutter and sinker. Being able to throw the curveball both as a strike pitch and as a put-away pitch unlocked new skills for Wainwright, who appeared to be on the decline in his late thirties. Unfortunately, the baseball world only got a glimpse of this reinvented Wainwright, who had elbow problems throughout the year and was limited to 40.1 IP.

With 2018 being injury shortened, Wainwright did not have a full sample size to see if this new curveball usage would work. This led to Wainwright using a similar pitch mix in 2019, which resulted in more success than anyone anticipated. In 171.2 IP, Waino pitched to a 4.19 ERA, 4.36 FIP, and 20.5% K-rate, proving that he had more left in the tank. The 20.5% K-rate was a blast from the past for Wainwright, who had not been above the 20% mark since 2013, when he finished 2nd in NL Cy Young voting. While a 20.5% is nothing to write home about for most pitchers, it is passable for a groundball pitcher like Wainwright. The intense use of the curveball was able to keep hitters off balance and induce more soft contact than previous seasons.

Despite Wainwright's stuff returning to a version of his former All-Star self, Wainwright's shortcomings in 2019 were in his command. A pitcher can lose command as they age or are coming off an arm injury, and Wainwright was dealing with both in 2019 and the few years before. From the start of his career to 2015, Wainwright had a career walk-rate of 5.7%. From 2016 to 2019, it jumped up to 7.5%. His 8.6% walk-rate in 2019 was just about league average, which is not sufficient enough for a pitcher who is not reliant on strikeouts to get outs.

Wainwright now established a pitch mix and strategy that could succeed, he just needed to refine it. Refining a skillset is usually left to younger pitchers who are still finding themselves in the majors and have multiple years of development ahead of them, but it was critical for Waino as he had to redefine himself. And that's exactly what he did. In the shortened 2020 season, Wainwright was outstanding with a 3.15 ERA, 4.11 FIP, and a 14.9% K-BB%. While the 4.11 FIP suggests Wainwright was outperforming his peripheral stats, that is the result of the increase of HRs hit against him. His 14.9 K-BB% number jumped up 3% from 2019 as Wainwright figured out how to command his new pitch mix. While maintaining a 20% K-rate, he dropped his BB-rate 3% to a stellar 5.7%. Wainwright's cutter and curveball command was night and day between 2019 and 2020.

Wainwright's 2019 cutter vs. 2020

As the graphic shows, Wainwright found a pinpoint location down and away in 2020. He was rarely missing with the pitch, and it was constantly finding the right part of the zone. His cutter in 2019 struggled because he was not able to find that sweet spot down and away, instead he was just able to get it to the outer half of the plate. Wainwright found similar changes with his curveball location as well, displaying that his command improvements spread across his repertoire.

Wainwright's 2019 curveball vs. 2020

Wainwright was able to drop the curveball to the bottom half of the zone in 2020 with a significant percentage of the pitches just grabbing the bottom part of the strike-zone. He was no longer just trying to get strikes with the curveball, he was finding ways to put the curveball in difficult spots of the strike-zone.

Wainwright discovered his command again and now he was able to attack the zone unlike before. His 67.6 first pitch strike rate in 2019 was the highest mark of his career by 3% and up by 9% in 2019. Wainwright found himself in the driver's seat of at-bats now more than ever and he was able to control the game now more than ever. His swinging strike rate eclipsed 10% leading to his CSW rate climbing north of 30%, both of which were firsts in his career. The increased strikeout rate and decreased walk rate matched with no significant changes in contact against him led to massive success and a 3.15 ERA on the year, which was good for 18th best in baseball among qualified starters.

2020 was a shortened season, so many believed that Wainwright's success would not be replicated in a full 2021 as 2020 was just a small sample size of 65 IP. However, Waino is proving that he's still got it and does not look like slowing down anytime soon. His 3.51 ERA is bolstered by a 3.92 FIP, suggesting that there is not much luck to this year's success. Despite his walk rate going up by a single percentage point, his strikeout rate increased by 3%. These numbers, a 23.1% K-rate and 6.6% BB-rate, are in line or above the numbers during his prime years.

The jump in strikeout rate can be explained by Wainwright's sinker, which has taken leaps forward under his new pitch mix. By looking at run value, it clearly shows the rise of effectiveness from 2018 and on.

Year

Run Value

2018

4

2019

7

2020

-1

2021

-8

The sinker bottomed out in 2019 when it ranked 100th out of 115 sinkers that were thrown at least 350 times (Wainwright's was thrown 699 times). Now in 2021, the same pitch is good for 10th out of 132 sinkers. Wainwright has also found how to locate the sinker, similarly to how he figured it out with the curveball and cutter.

Wainwright's 2020 sinker vs. 2021

Wainwright was only putting his sinker middle-away in 2019 and struggling to consistently throw the pitch low in the zone. Unlike the cutter, which thrives in a specific spot, the sinker needs to be thrown low in the zone and in different spots in order to induce weak contact and keep hitters off balance. In 2021, he is showing that he can control the entire zone with the pitch as well as throw it down and away to generate whiffs. As his primary fastball pitch in 2021, the sinker has a .179 batting average against and a .222 xBA.

Since changing his pitch mix in 2018, Wainwright has consistently improved different facets of his game over the years to revive what might otherwise have been a dead career. He is now throwing 3 plus pitches again and is recovering his career strikeout and walk rates. By getting better from ages 36-39, it is incredible how he will likely be a productive pitcher until hanging the cleats up after the 2022 season at the latest. He unlocked new potential in himself and is not showing significant signs of slowing down. Barring another injury, it seems that Wainwright will be a staple in the Cardinals rotation until he rides off into the sunset next season.