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A step forward for Adam Wainwright

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A quality start against the Phillies is not a complete turnaround, but there is some room for optimism

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of the last month, there has been a fair bit of negativity surrounding the performance of Adam Wainwright. He has not pitched well. So far on the season, he has pitched 33.2 innings, struck out just 18 while walking 12 and giving up four home runs. His ERA is a gaudy 6.68 with a 4.71 FIP that does not exactly sparkle either.

The surface positives from last night:

  • He went six innings, something he has failed to do in half his starts this season.
  • He did not give up any home runs, and yielded just one extra base hit, a double to Carlos Ruiz in the sixth.
  • He gave up 3 runs, but they came via singles and a sac fly.
  • His four strikeouts were just one off his high from last start
  • He gave up just one walk, his fourth straight start with just one walk after walking eight his first two starts.
Those plaudits might not be great, but they are an improvement. As far as what was wrong with Wainwright, the red baron looked at his vertical release point, producing the following graph:
Wainorelease
And he accompanied that with the following analysis:
You'll notice all his pitches appear to be coming from a slightly lower arm slot than usual, suggesting perhaps Adam is simply getting 'under' his pitches slightly, causing them to flatten out, or be more hittable. We are talking about fractions of inches, of course, but sometimes that's all it takes. We see pitchers occasionally dropping their arm slots as a result of an injury, which is why the fact Adam's release point is lower is specifically concerning, but then again, we are obviously still dealing with very little data, so it's more likely to simply be a matter of not finding the right slot, rather than being unable to.
Joe Schwarz performed his own analysis focusing on the location of Wainwright's pitches, finding many up in the zone. He produced the following chart:
Waino FB CUT SI
And then provided the following analysis:
Pitchers with fastballs like Trevor Rosenthal's can get away with living up in the zone, but Wainwright, especially at his current stage of his career simply cannot. Again, small sample size considered, but hitters have been smacking Wainwright's fourseamers/sinkers/cutters all over the park so far this season. Wainwright may possess the best breaking ball on staff, but he can only throw it so much before hitters begin to sit on it. In order to be successful going forward, Wainwright must begin to command his fastballs, and ideally shift their respective locations downward.
Community post over at Fangraphs performed a similar analysis, breaking down the pitch locations by pitch compared to the rest of his career. The author also found that Wainwright was not locating his pitches well. As for Wainwright, he seemed to understand the problem, poking fun at himself in this Derrick Goold piece that does a very good job explaining the adjustments Wainwright has tried to make.
"By all accounts I'm doing a good job of locating the ball at the thigh, thigh-high across the zone," Wainwright said, facetiously. "I've got that one covered. No one would argue with that. I'm doing the best that you can possibly do throwing the ball thigh-high. I am lighting it up. And so that is bad."
So how did things go last night? They were better. Similar to the Community post at FanGraphs, here are a few heat maps for Wainwright from Baseball Savant. This is the Wainwright sinker for the first month of the season against right-handers.
wainosinker 04

The ground ball rate on that pitch was around 30% during the first month, yielding 70% line drives and fly balls, per Brooks Baseball. Now here it is last night against righties:

wainosinker05

The height is not significantly different, but there were much fewer pitches up in the middle of the zone last night. Just four balls were hit in play on the pitch with two ground ball and two line drives. In his start as a whole, he gave up just four fly balls that reached the outfield. The location of his sinker was better. What about the cutter?

To produce the most dramatic effect, here is the cutter before the Arizona game covering his first four starts:

wainocutter04

He just wasn't even putting it in the strike zone, and the pitch tended to be up. Here is his cutter last night:

wainocutter05

The pitch is lower, in the zone, but not in the middle of the plate. Compare that to his career:

wainocuttercareer

He was a lot closer last night to hitting his spots with his pitches. He still isn't generating a great number of swings and misses, but if he can locate, and keep his walks down, he should be considerably better going forward. There are a lot of comparisons to be made to 2012 given Wainwright missed the season before in both years. Wainwright was better at the beginning of the season in 2012, but he was still pretty bad.

Through 8 starts in 2012, Wainwright pitched 43.2 innings, had 40 strikeouts against 16 walks, but gave up 7 home runs. His ERA was 5.77 (compared to 6.68 through six starts). his FIP was 4.51 (compared to 4.71 now). He was giving up a lot of hard contact, then, too. He righted things and had a 3.43 ERA and 2.70 FIP the rest of the way. We still don't know what Wainwright has to offer the rest of the season. He might not miss enough bats to come close to his previous ace form.

The important thing to note now is that he recognized a problem, found a solution to that problem, and that solution has seemed to yield positive results in terms of where his pitches are going. If you were worried Wainwright was done, it is safe to say that he is not. How consistent he can be with the adjustments, and if he can make any further improvements will be key to his performance the rest of the season.