Adam Wainwright is the star of the St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff and one of the best aces in the majors. The righty has 121 wins, a 3.04 career ERA, 1,335 strikeouts and four top-three Cy Young finishes under his belt. In 2015 he started as expected, cruising. In 4 starts he managed to post an 1.44 ERA and a 2.05 FIP in 25 innings with 18 SO and just 1 BB, 8 XHB (35% of the hits allowed). When everything was looking promising for another dominant season, he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon during a plate appearance against the Milwaukee Brewers on April 25th. This injury sent him to the disabled list until late September where he just got the chance to pitch another 3 innings.
Before the start of this season his name was part of lots of baseball discussions: Which Adam Wainwright should we expect? The ace? Or will he show declining signs due to the long ride on the DL, his 34 years and +500 innings in the last two seasons? The numbers speak by themselves: An 7.25 ERA, 4.87 FIP in 22.1 innings with just 9 SO and 10 BB, 13 XBH (45% of the hits allowed). A complete disaster if we compare this start with last April.
Those facts led us to the question: What is wrong with Adam Wainwright? Using the data sample of April 2015 & 2016 we will try to figure out the reasons behind this horrible start of the season and what should be the changes that could help Waino get back on track.
Pitch velocity and movement
The first reason that jumped to my mind was that he may be having trouble with the speed of the fastball or break of his nasty curveball. I went to Brook Baseball to check this values and compare April’15 with April’16.
Using the 4 starts of last year, Waino’s fast pitches were the four-seamer, the sinker and the cutter, averaging 90.33 MPH, 90.4 MPH and 86.4 MPH respectively. Contrary to my first hypothesis, the speed chart on 2016’s April did not show any significant variance averaging 90.83 MPH, 90.33 MPH and 87.06 MPH. If anything, he is throwing faster. What about the breaking stuff? During 2015 the nasty curveball and the changeup average were 75.36 MPH and 83.71 MPH, values that are really similar to what we have seen this year: 75.43 MPH and 83.54 MPH.
We can conclude with this data that the speed is not an issue, but what do the numbers say about the ball’s movement? All his pitches were showing very similar vertical and horizontal movement compared to last year data and the career normal of Adam Wainwright. These means that the first hypothesis has to be dismissed, the power on his fast pitches and the break on the slow ones is still there.
Location and control
Other potential cause of the bad start of the season could be the location of Adam’s pitches and his control of them. A good way to visually understand the location of his pitches is using a heatmap over the K-Zone. The darker the color, the biggest the frequency. To generate the great graphs that you can see below I used the pitchFX tool from Baseball Savant, posting side-by-side the career, 2015 and 2016 values.
The heatmaps really help to get quick answers. Let’s start with the four-seamer. We can clearly see that during this season the dark cluster is located up in the zone. Compared to his career profile Wainwright is locating the fastball higher than his typical zone, something that is not a good sign for a pitcher that only throw it at 90 MPH and depend so much on control to minimize damage.
The case of the cutter is similar: low control of the pitch. 2016 graph shows a problem locating this pitch in the strike zone. The career profile indicates that he likes to throw this pitch down and outside for RHB and down and in for LHB, something that have been difficult this season when the cutter is also falling high that normal.
In the case of the sinker I split the heatmaps between LHB and RHB since this specific pitch is used very differently by Waino depending on the batter handedness. Against lefties the heatmaps shows great that he is following his typical profile, so there should not be a problem. Meanwhile against righties Wainwright has been having troubles locating this pitch outside in the zone as he is used to. This year, lot of the sinkers against RHB has been located in the center of the plate many times, low in the zone, but still in an area than MLB batters can crush easily.
Exactly the same thing happens when we see the curveball graphs. Career data showed that he has been really successful hitting the low part of the strike zone, especially last year when this pitch was falling in the ideal place, just below the K-zone frame. But this year the story have changed. The curveballs has been located higher than ever, in the hitter power zone.
There is no doubt that Wainwright in this season is having a hard time controlling his pitches, especially falling up in the zone with the fast ones and right in the middle with the breaking ones. He is showing significant differences with his career profile that could be a direct cause of the bad start of 2016.
The speed and break are still there. The location no so much. So what about the approach to the at bats? It’s similar or he have changed it due the lack of control of his pitches? Let’s try to answer this question using data of his pitch mix and the results of balls in play comparing Wainwright’s career profile with the 2016 sample data.
As you can see on the table below, two things needs to be addressed: First, this season he largely ditched his sinker (-9%) in favor of more cutters (+8%) and curves (+4%). Second, the ground balls has dropped dramatically (-10%), leading to an increase in flyballs (+9%) and linedrives (+1%). Why such a change in Waino’s approach to the plate?
There are quick conclusions. The sinker is an excellent groundball pitch, so obviously if you use less sinkers, you get less groundballs. But as we saw in the previous section of the article, Wainwright is having tons of problems with the location of his sinker: the majority of this pitches stay on the hitter friendly zone, resulting in an increase of the linedrive percentage (+17%) and a .500 batting average of balls in play.
As if it were not enough with the sinker issues, the high location of his four-seamer is causing 18% more flyballs and 24% less ground balls. This critical situation left just one option of the fast pitch arsenal of Wainwright: the cutter. As his last resource he increase the use of it 8% and some results have been good. Is the only one that have an increase in groundball percentage (+4%) and a drop in flyballs percentage (-12%). Nevertheless the resulting average of balls in play is .400, so please don’t take this as a sliver bullet. Remember that we also point out previously that the control on the cutter has not been the best in 2016.
The other pitch that has been favored this season was the curveball. Although the % of wiffs has dropped from a career average of 17% to only 9% and the flyballs (+11%) have increased significantly, the opponents only average .118 against the curve. This is really impressive especially after we analyze the bad location of this pitch, but he keep using it since is the only pitch that is giving good results to Wainwright.
Even with a small sample of 2016 data we can drive some conclusions: The arm power and the movement on Adam Wainwright’s five pitches is still there. The long rest due the injury, the +500 innings from 2013 to 2015 and his 34 years do not seem to be a problem right now. The problem seems to be in the location of his pitches. The four-seamer high in the zone and he sinker in the middle of the plate has been destroyed by the batters, reducing the ground balls in a dramatically way and increasing the linedrives and flyballs.
Wainwright is clearly trying to make adjustments in order to reduce the damage. For now on his nasty curve is saving the day being his only effective pitch even when has been located in a dangerous zone. The cutter is not helping enough so his focus should be in taking back the control of the location of the pitches. In his last outing he showed some positive signs. Let’s see what happens in the next one against Arizona, if we get more of the ace or if he still struggles to get back to track.