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Adam Wainwright has looked a little bit better

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And the curveball has been a big reason why.

St. Louis Cardinals v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It’s a harsh reality check when we, as fans of the St. Louis Cardinals, are forced to accept a two earned-run, five-inning start by former ace Adam Wainwright as “a little bit better.” Yet, as Wainwright creeps ever closer to the age of 36, this level of performance is an unfortunate inevitability, even if a Hall of Fame pitcher believes he will “reinvent himself and get people out.” Frankly, even the very best pitchers — and Wainwright certainly is one of the very best to ever don the Birds on the Bat — eventually decline to a point where retirement is nothing more than a formality. All that being said, Wainwright isn’t retiring (and the 2017 Cardinals cannot afford him to). Plus, his current contract doesn’t expire until the end of next season.

Honestly, I didn’t plan on bringing up the word “retirement” until I began crafting this post’s opening, so let’s quickly move on from the subject. On a more positive note and as already alluded to above, Wainwright did look a little bit better against the Brewers in his last start — also known as the smallest sample size possible for a starting pitcher. For comparative purposes, here’s how the 6’7” right-hander has fared thus far in 2017:

Adam Wainwright, 2017 game logs

Date Opponent IP H ER BB K HR Pitches
Date Opponent IP H ER BB K HR Pitches
4/4/17 Cubs 5.0 3 2 2 6 0 82
4/10/17 Nationals 4.0 11 5 2 3 0 96
4/16/17 Yankees 4.2 10 4 2 4 2 98
4/21/17 Brewers 5.0 6 2 0 9 0 100

As you can see, Wainwright has yet to throw a single pitch in the sixth inning this season. For a pitcher boasting 173 career quality starts — by definition, requiring pitching through the sixth inning — this is a sad development, but again, we are still only talking about four starts.

One of the main issues plaguing Wainwright over the last three seasons — other than health, of course — has been his increased inability to miss bats, subsequently leading to lower strikeout rates, as he found himself below the 20% threshold in each of 2014, (an injury-shortened) 2015, and 2016. Remember, we are dealing with just enough of a sample size so far in 2017 — 90 total batters faced — to at least begin taking his 24.4% strikeout rate seriously. However, the Brewers strike out more than any other team in baseball, so his nine strikeouts over five innings certainly inflates his overall rate. It still helps to look at the positives sometimes, as long as you are able to admit to the respective stipulations.

Remember the post I wrote on Wainwright’s “flattened curveball” in June last season? The same pitch I followed up on three months later? Due to a diminished shape, it was leading to fewer swings and misses and fewer chases out of the zone — hence, negatively affecting his strikeout rate. Well, prior to being introduced to the great work of @cardinalsgifs, I was only able to bore readers with PitchF/x data (via BrooksBaseball.net) when trying to explain my point. Fortunately, this is no longer the case:

Curveball number one (the sky blue trail), to Yoenis Cespedes on August 7, 2014 (BrooksBaseball At Bat) is downright devastating. Of note, using pitch value as a barometer, Wainwright possessed one of the best curveballs in baseball that season. Curveball number two (the magenta trail), to Buster Posey on June 3, 2016 (BrooksBaseball At Bat), is considerably flatter. Sure enough, Wainwright barely even cracked the top 25 in curveball pitch value in 2016.

The second curveball follows a similar shape to the first one, but for a pitch sharing an essentially identical apex, the final location is noticeably different — though it is admittedly closer than visualized in the GIF since the trail cuts off when Posey makes contact. Regardless, look no further than the hitters’ reactions on each. Cespedes nearly fell to the ground as his knees buckled beneath him, while Posey just barely missed launching a homer into his team’s bullpen. But, as you already know, “looking no further” isn’t part of my modus operandi. Look at the difference in release points — both vertically and horizontally. Look at the difference in velocity (78.8 MPH versus 72.9 MPH). Look at the follow-through.

In each instance, Wainwright’s curve from 2014 was much better than the one from 2016. His release point was higher. The velocity was higher. And the follow-through screamed “this is going to be my best curveball of the season.” I fully understand 2016 was a year in which Wainwright was still recovering from the Achilles tear he suffered in 2015. However, these are issues that are relatively independent of the Achilles tear — other than maybe the follow-through.

Bottom line, this was a roundabout exercise to arrive at the pretty simple conclusion that I am cautiously optimistic about the state of Wainwright’s curveball through four starts this season. His average vertical release point (6.39 feet) is creeping back upward — after reaching a career low last season (6.3 feet). His average spin rate is slightly up, to 2717 rpm from 2657 rpm. The pitch is experiencing more vertical drop this season than last. His 2017 location has been so much better than his 2016 location. The velocity is still slightly down (75.21 MPH) from where it was in 2014 (75.49 MPH), but that is something that we are just going to have to accept at this point. As we all know, the curve is Wainwright’s foundation for success. Here’s to hoping the pitch’s early returns are repeatable and that he will soon be pitching into and through the sixth inning.

As always, credit to @cardinalsgifs for the GIF, BrooksBaseball.net for the PitchF/x data, and BaseballSavant.com for Statcast-related items.