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Adam Wainwright needs to simplify approach in 2017

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Consistency with his fastballs should be Adam Wainwright’s primary focus entering 2017.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

There is no denying that 2016 was a down year for Adam Wainwright. While he finished the season with an above-average fWAR of 2.9 (2nd on the Cardinals, 17th in the NL), his 4.62 ERA was more than a half run higher than his previous career high (3.94 in 2012 — in which he was only one year removed from Tommy John surgery). Wainwright recorded 18 quality starts out of 33 total, or 54.54% — a career low percentage. To put this into context, here are Waino’s quality start percentages over his last six full seasons prior to 2016:

Adam Wainwright Quality Start Percentage

2014 2013 2012 2010 2009 2007
2014 2013 2012 2010 2009 2007
78.13% (32 GS) 76.47% (34 GS) 56.25% (32 GS) 75.76% (33 GS) 75.53% (34 GS) 65.63% (32 GS)

Admittedly, the “quality start” is an inherently flawed statistic. Pitching six innings while allowing three earned runs yields an ERA of 4.50. By this standard, Wainwright’s season ERA (4.62) was only slightly higher than the quality start ERA. I considered 2016 a “down” year, so the quality start could either use some tweaking, or you could go elsewhere like Bill James’ game score. That being said, I chose to stick with the quality start, though, because it is a predefined statistic that everyone should be familiar with by now. And when you include the percentages seen in the table above, it helps you appreciate just how consistent Wainwright had been in years prior.

We get it. Wainwright had a down 2016. I could not readily find the articles (probably from Derrick Goold is able to help), but I believe Wainwright already admitted, on multiple occasions, that 2016 was a tough year for him. So, what went wrong and what can be fixed? For this exercise, I reviewed each of Wainwright’s 33 starts on BrooksBaseball.net but turned my attention specifically to his 18 quality starts. This research led to the creation of the following chart:

Don’t get too caught up trying to overanalyze the complexity of this chart (especially if you are on mobile because I know that it’s tough to read). The chart’s muddled nature is the exact point I am trying to make. Even in Wainwright’s 18 quality starts, he was continuously toying with repertoire. The fourseamer (the red line), an unheralded yet very important pitch for him, went from being barely used to abandoned entirely to used quite frequently to barely used — all in one season. The sinker (the green line), while it experienced a little more stability than the fourseamer, had some strange dips in June as well.

Frankly, these fluctuations in fastball usage should not happen. Yes, I completely understand that a scouting report of an opposing team’s hitters can affect pitch usage, but not to the extent that it affected Wainwright’s fastballs last season. While the curveball and cutter are Wainwright’s clear “out” pitches, they must first be effectively sequenced by his fastballs (fourseamer and sinker), as is the case with most secondary pitches. Plus, if Wainwright’s curveball flight is diminished at all (i.e. flattened), just as it was in 2016, it only adds to the importance of his fastballs.

So what would I like to see from Wainwright in 2017? A simplified approach, headlined by more consistency in his usage of fastballs — both his fourseamer and sinker. He should never go an entire start without throwing a single fourseamer. Yet, he did exactly that on May 7th against the Pirates and followed it up with two straight starts in which he threw only one fourseamer each. Wainwright is at his best when he is painting corners with fastballs early in the count. He is at his best when a hitter, behind in the count, is sitting on his curveball only to watch a fourseamer cross the outside corner of the plate for strike three.

Wainwright’s floor is defined by his terrific secondary offerings, but his future ceiling will be determined by his utilization (and subsequent effectiveness) of his fastballs. In other words, his curveball and cutter are good enough to get him by for an average to slightly above-average season. Wainwright, even now that he is 35 years old, isn’t viewed (or paid) as an average to above-average pitcher. Will he be a floor-defined pitcher (2.5-3 fWAR) over the final two years of his contract (in which he is owed $39 million) or will he be able to reach toward the aforementioned ceiling (4-4.5 fWAR)?

Really, it is pretty simple. It all starts with his fastballs.