St. Louis Cardinals Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright has performed more like Vance Worley (If you do not understand this reference, click here. Yes, Worley was an Opening Day starter once.) than a three-time All-Star for the majority of the 2016 season. However, after a scoreless seven-inning outing last night against the Houston Astros, Wainwright has now strung together three straight quality starts and during that span, has racked up 21 strikeouts over 20 innings and has allowed only four earned runs. His overall statistics still do not look quite like what you would expect from a staff ace, but it cannot be ignored that they at least appear to be trending in the right direction.
2016 Statistics (Via FanGraphs.com)
Pitch Velocities (MPH) By Month (Via BrooksBaseball.net, excludes last night's start)
The slight velocity uptick in May was a positive sign, but still, at ~92 and ~91 MPH, respectively, neither the fourseamer nor the twoseamer will blow too many MLB hitters away. Thus, location remains of paramount importance for the 34-year-old craftsman of a pitcher. With commanding the corners in mind, it is not surprising to see that Wainwright appears to have dialed back on fastball velocity in his last two starts (last night's start was not yet included in his BrooksBaseball player card at time of publishing). And as you will see in the heat maps below, a new approach and better command of the corners seem to have accompanied the velocity decrease. For those wondering, once Wainwright regains comfort in commanding the corners, I would not be the least bit surprised if his fastball velocities begin to climb back up to where they were last month. Coming off a major injury, it is just a matter of increased repetitions and comfort for a pitcher of Wainwright's quality.
Fastball Location Versus Left-Handed Batters (Via Baseballsavant.mlb.com)
Through Wainwright's first 11 starts, Wainwright primarily attacked left-handed batters up and in with his fastballs, but as you can see by the core not being especially tight, his fastballs often strayed to include the heart of the plate. From an effective velocity standpoint, attacking up and in is not necessarily a bad approach to lefties, but considering the looseness of the core, one must understand that Wainwright was not particularly consistent at reaching this zone. Missing down and away from an up-and-in focus leads to grooved pitches right over the heart of the plate, and not often do I recommend grooving 90-92 MPH fastballs to MLB hitters.
In his last three starts, Wainwright has drastically changed both the horizontal and vertical location of his fastballs versus lefties. The pitches' core has shifted from the inside over to the outside corner and has also dropped one vertical deviation. If Wainwright misses toward the inner half on this focus, he still runs the risk of grooving a pitch, but this seems to be a more natural zone for him to attack as this core is much tighter (despite a smaller sample size) than the one shown in the heat map of his first 11 starts.
Fastball Location Versus Right-Handed Batters (Via Baseballsavant.mlb.com)
Just as we saw with the left-handed heat maps, Wainwright appears to have shifted his fastball location versus right-handed batters as well. Over his first 11 starts, Wainwright's most-frequented spot was down and in, but in actuality, he never truly developed a true focus from a location standpoint (as shown by the red populating essentially the entire strike zone). In his last three starts, Wainwright's focus has been much clearer -- attack righties up and away with fastballs. And while I still don't necessarily recommend Wainwright living up in the zone, from a sequencing standpoint this location makes sense because it does a good job at changing the eye level of the hitter considering his curveball and cutter are often down and away to right-handed batters.
I completely understand that a sample size of three starts is significantly smaller than a sample of eleven starts, but this post is largely meant to be read as descriptive rather than analytic. The heat maps show that there was a clear difference in fastball approach for Wainwright over his last three starts. The significance of this change in approach remains to be seen, but it is definitely something worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.
Regardless, in order for Wainwright to be consistently successful, he must first command his fastballs (fourseamer and twoseamer). I realize (and appreciate) that he has a terrific curveball, and I know he loves throwing the cutter, but at the end of the day, it all starts with his fastballs. He knows the importance of fastball command and seems to have made at least one adjustment (dialing back in velocity) to achieve said command. The Cardinals are significantly better when Adam Wainwright is pitching like Adam Wainwright. Let's hope he continues to build on the success he's had over the last three starts.
P.S. This will be my last post until at least June 28th as I am getting married on Saturday and will be spending the entire next week in Italy. I look forward to the time off and fully expect the Cardinals to go undefeated while I am out of the country.