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A deeper look at Wainwright’s struggles

I am not satisfied with just saying “he throws it slower”

Chicago Cubs v. St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Mercifully, I did not watch Saturday’s baseball game. It was a start so bad that it caused Adam Wainwright to delete his twitter. Well, no actually it was the fans who did that. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: Adam Wainwright, for whatever reason, does not get the leeway other Cardinals’ legends get. You could blame it on his performance, but honestly this happened before he threw a pitch this season.

It’s tough to be a Wainwright defender these days. And when I say it’s tough, I more mean it’s kind of difficult to witness the negativity towards him personally. It’s not actually difficult in the sense that I’m struggling to want to defend Wainwright. It’s not necessarily easy to watch him pitch though.

There are a few instances in my Cardinal fandom history where I just root more for certain Cardinals’ players. And Wainwright this year is one of those instances. With most players, I understand it’s a long season and because of that, my emotions don’t really get too up or down with their performance in a single game. But there’s a few where I can feel myself rooting for a good outcome like it’s the 9th inning of a tie game.

Anyway, I’m not completely satisfied with writing off Wainwright’s decline as “he throws slower.” He threw slow last year. He threw it very slow last year. He was in the 2nd percentile in fastball speed. He was also a 3 fWAR pitcher. He was also in the 1st percentile in whiff%. So you could say “he’s missing bats,” but well he didn’t last year either.

My basic argument, which you may or may not agree with, is that Wainwright last year who throws 2 mph slower is not pitching anywhere near this bad. He’s probably not a 3 WAR pitcher. But I think he’d be confidently in that 4th/5th starter range. He’s pitching worse than that and I think it’s a deeper explanation than speed, possibly something he can fix.

I discovered three things other than fastball velocity that represent a decline. One big one, connected to velocity actually, is extension. He’s not getting as much extension on his pitches. At all. He’s been well above average most years of his career. He’s usually between 70 and 80 percentile in extension, and was 62 last year. This year he’s dead 50th percentile.

What is extension? It helps it seem like the pitches are coming faster than they are. Because in a way, it is. The distance between the plate and when the pitcher releases it shortens with a longer extension. Basically, Wainwright isn’t only throwing it slower, but it’s not playing faster either. That’s not a good combo. It speaks to either a timing or mechanics issue, both of which are theoretically fixable. Which, if you’re feeling really optimistic, could be why his velocity is slower.

The second problem is his curve isn’t as good. His curveball spin has declined a ton. And it’s not getting as much horizontal movement as it did last year. You don’t necessarily think about horizontal movement when you see Wainwright’s curve. He gets 2 more inches of vertical movement than average, which is in line with both last year and 2020 (he had 3 inches in 2021).

But he’s gotten just 3.9 inches of horizontal break compared to average this season, which is still above average, but he got 5.1 inches difference in 2022, 5.9 in 2021, and 5.6 in 2020. And then there’s the aforementioned spin. I’m sure these stats are related. He was in the 86th percentile in curveball spin last year, 89 in 2021 (his pitches were at their post-prime Waino peak in 2021), and 80 in 2020. This year, his curveball spin is in the 69th percentile. I don’t know how fixable this is, but it’s a pretty deadly combo.

Lastly, he just straight up is struggling with control. The key stat for me is first strike%. That’s his bread and butter. He has thrown a first pitch strike 52.3% of the time, which is at least a career low in the Statcast recorded era. His late-career rejuvenation is at least partly based on the fact that he gets ahead in the count. He hasn’t been doing that. The MLB average is 60.8%. He was only at 62.6% last year, but he was at 64.4% and 67.6% the two years prior.

Because his other “plate discipline” stats are not really alarming. He’s falling behind on the first pitch and then having to recover, which is not a good place to be. His zone% is 48%, which is just short of the 48.5% average for MLB and for Wainwright’s Statcast career. So he’s still throwing it in the zone as much as before, but it’s coming on more hitter’s counts than in the past.

So those are the three differences besides fastball velocity: curveball spin, first pitch strike%, and worse extension on his pitches. Maybe these are all age-related and he’s doomed, maybe they aren’t. And I don’t actually know if it makes you feel better than it’s not just fastball velocity. Are you a glass half full guy or glass half empty? Because one way of looking at it is that Wainwright got worse in multiple ways and he’s doomed. The other way is that if he fixes one or two of these problems, he’s bound to improve. I choose the latter half personally.

I’ll share a couple more stats that are results-oriented that I find interesting. I figured that any results-based stats were not going to make Wainwright look good and I didn’t think it would tell us much if I said “well the reason he’s been bad is because this pitch is getting a negative run value.”

But well, the reason Wainwright has been bad if you look at the run values of his pitches is.... his sinker is the worst pitch ever this year. His curveball and 4-seam fastball, if you can believe it, have been worth -1 runs. Negative for pitchers is a good thing. His cutter has been a +2 and his change has been a +1. You’ll notice that all this adds up to 0. 72.2% of Wainwright’s pitches average out to a net neutral run value. His sinker has been worth +12 runs. That’s +1 for every 22.5 pitches thrown. Since he throws it 32.8% of the time, it’s costing him about a run and half worse per game compared to the average pitcher.

So... like pull a Charlie Morton dude. Just throw your curveball half the time. It cannot possibly be as bad as the results his sinker is currently getting. That is unfathomable. Just based on the results his pitches have gotten, his sinker is almost entirely the reason for his struggles.

Another stat I wanted to share that I found interesting that was never going to look good with the results he’s gotten, but nonetheless they are a bit fascinating is the swing/take stats. This is more known as a hitter’s stats, but a swing/take gives run values to the choice a hitter makes to swing or chase a pitch in four different zones: heart, shadow, chase, and waste.

Now, I don’t know if this comes as a surprise or not, but Wainwright is a pitcher who, last year, was near the top of the leaderboard when he threw a pitch in the heart of the zone and when he threw it in the shadow zone. Shadow zone is perhaps less surprising - he ranked 17th in baseball - but you wouldn’t think it’d be a good idea to groove a pitch in the heart. And yet, he was 27th in all of baseball with -17 runs.

Well that’s basically the difference between this year and last. His chase is +7 this year, which is actually a better rate than last year at his current pace. But his shadow is just +2 and he’s been +0 in heart of the order pitches. Although back to the chase, hitters are making more contact on out of zone pitches. They are connecting with 72.6% of pitches out of the zone up from 68.5% last year. That could be his sinker being hittable no matter where it’s thrown or his curve not having as much spin. But interesting thing.

So can Wainwright be fixed? Sure why not. Pitching is weird. What you think I’m going to end this article saying Wainwright will suck forever? I’m not allowed to say this, so forgive the censorship but: four-letter off.