In a postseason already filled with great pitching performances, Adam Wainwright’s gem on Sunday afternoon was likely one of the most unexpected. He held the Braves scoreless over seven and two-thirds innings, allowing just six baserunners while striking out eight. If Carlos Martínez had been able to hold onto the slim margin he was handed in the ninth, the headline would have certainly featured the 38-year-old’s gutsy outing. But this latest start was just one more milestone in a career filled with postseason heroics.
2006 feels like a lifetime ago. Wainwright had just turned 25 and was pitching out of the bullpen for the Cardinals in his first full season in the majors. That was where his October legend began, on the road to the Cardinals first World Series win since 1982. The enduring image from that championship season is the final pitch of Game 5 (a cutter) but Wainwright’s crucible was Game 7 of the NLCS. Facing a bases-loaded situation in the ninth, Wainwright struck out Carlos Beltrán on three pitches, the last of which was a nasty curveball that Beltrán could only stare at.
Wainwright’s latest entry in his postseason mythos was forged with the same pitch that froze Beltrán 13 years ago: his curveball. Back in July, I examined the adjustments he was making during a late career resurgence:
As you might expect, much of Wainwright’s recent success has been driven by his signature pitch, his curveball. Throughout his career, he would throw his big breaker just over a quarter of the time. But last year, he took a page out of the Rich Hill handbook and started throwing his curveball 37% of the time.
As the season wore on, he continued to increase the usage of his curveball, reaching 42.3% in September:
On Sunday, Wainwright threw 57 curveballs, making up 47.5% of his 120 pitches. By raw count and usage rate, that’s the highest number of curves he’s thrown in a single start in his career. He was simply masterful with it. He generated six whiffs and 12 called strikes with the pitch, giving him a called strike plus swinging strike rate of 31.6%. When the Braves did manage to put his curve in play, they still found themselves stymied. Even though five of their 11 balls in play off the pitch were hit with an exit velocity over 95 mph, three of those came on the ground and the two hard hit balls in the air were easily caught in the outfield. The other six balls in play were weakly hit groundballs and popups, giving him an average exit velocity on his curve of 88.6 mph.
If we look at Wainwright’s pitch chart, his overall approach on Sunday stands out easily:
Curveballs down, fastballs up was the plan of attack, and when he needed to move the batter’s eye in and out, he called on his cutter on the glove-side of the plate. Here’s what I wrote about his cutter back in July:
[H]is surge over the last month and a half has as much to do with his curveball as it does one of his other secondary pitches, his cutter. He dropped the usage of his cutter (along with his other two fastballs) when he started throwing his bender more often, but it’s still an important pitch for him and he’s finally leaning on it again.
Wainwright went to his cutter almost a quarter of the time on Sunday and generated a 33% whiff rate with the pitch. Of the four balls put in play off the cutter, just one was hit hard, a 98.6 mph ground out to first. While his fastball wasn’t nearly as effective as his secondary offerings, the result was a very effective approach that kept the Braves off balance all afternoon. His lone mistake was a center-cut sinker in a 3-1 that Dansby Swanson hit for a double in the third.
Because the Cardinals have been so successful since his rookie season in 2006, Wainwright has had plenty of opportunities to add to his legend. By Game Score, his start on Sunday was his second best of his postseason career (77 GS). His best start in the postseason was the eight inning gem he pitched against the Dodgers in the 2009 playoffs. That started ended the same way this latest one did, with the Cardinals bullpen blowing the slim lead they were handed.
Wainwright’s 13th postseason start lowered his postseason ERA to 2.79 in 25 appearances. In just five of his 25 appearances has he allowed more than two runs. Among all pitchers with at least 25 appearances and more than 90 innings pitched in the playoffs, his ERA ranks fourth. Below is a sortable table with the 13 pitchers in this elite group:
Wainwright’s 6.12 postseason strikeout-to-walk ratio is tops among this group. His FIP is second only to Mariano Rivera. With the Cardinals on the verge of a first-round exit, there’s a chance that this start was Wainwright’s final postseason appearance. No one could argue that he didn’t give everything he had left in Sunday’s start. If this is the end of the line, he’ll go down as one of the best playoff pitchers in baseball history.