Through five starts, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright has a 1.93 ERA, 1.09 FIP, and 2.13 SIERA. Of the 144 batsmen to face Wainwright, 37 struck out and just 1 walked — Bryce Harper in the 6th inning of last Tuesday’s game. Wainwright has induced a career-high 55.8% groundball-rate; he has held opponents to 8 earned runs, 9 runs total, scattered across 37 and 1/3 innings.
Wainwright is not “on fire.” He is fire. Butane lighters hang pictures of him on their bedroom walls. Local volunteer firemen warn children about Wainwright during school visits.
So how does an excellent pitcher produce results like a deity pitcher? For Wainwright, the tactic appears to be: (a) Throw a full spectrum of fastballs, (b) select from that fastball spectrum at an increasingly unpredictable rhythm, and (c) pitch against the right teams.
Wainwright throws a sinker, cutter, curve and changeup. He has employed this quadrumvirate of grips since 2009 with little change. But in 2012 he brought back an old friend — a four-seam pitch that essentially bridges a gap of horizontal movement between his sinker and cutter. It literally looks like a bridge now, a red bridge. And in 2013, he has used that fastball zone even more:
The MLB algorithm for pitch identification (“pitch_type” above) changes almost every year, and it changes only for the active year. So the MLB’s default output suggests Wainwright has employed a constantly changing repertoire of pitches. This is incorrect.
However, its fickle algorithm has been accurate — or at least consistent — since 2010. Note how, above, his sinker (SI) percentage has steadily edged down over the last three seasons, while his fastball (FF) usage has increased. In 2013, he has thrown more cutters (CU), more four-seamers, and a more even distribution of all his pitches.
In 2010, he threw his sinker almost half the time. Now, it is leaving his hand only 1 out of every 4 pitches. The sinker is still his go-to pitch early in an at bat, but he has added more diversity and a new wrinkle.
So is that the answer? Is that how Wainwright has managed an absurd 0.7% walk-rate?
Looking from the other direction, we see batters are making less contact in the zone (85.6% according to PITCHf/x) and their contact levels against him in general are lower (76.7% contact rate), but this appears to come largely from hitters swinging at an increased rate. Opponents are swinging at 47.9% of Wainwright’s offerings, a career-high for the redbird.
Could his pitch selection be fooling batters into taking more bad hacks and thereby producing more empty swings? Abso-lutely. But we also have to remember: Though he has faced 144 hitters, those hitters came from only 5 organizations. This is where those teams rank in walk rate and swing rate:
|Team||BB%||BB% MLB Rank||BB% NL Rank||Swing%||Swing% MLB Rank||Swing% NL Rank|
Wainwright has not faced a neutral sampling of lineups. All five opponents rank in the bottom half of both the MLB and NL in walk rate, and 3 of the 5 teams rank among the most prolific swinging lineups.
How do you walk only 1 out of 144 batters? I believe Step 1 must be: Choose your opponents wisely.
But that should not undersell his new approach and pitch diversity. With two strikes, he has gone to his fastball more than his sinker, and the results have been outstanding so far: Just two hits.
His first and second 2-strike choice will always be the back-door cutter and buried curve, but adding a third fastball has created an extra-potent challenge for the batter and tool for the pitcher.
On Monday night, Wainwright faces the Cincinnati Reds. Their .332 OBP (No. 5) and their 10.2% walk rate (No. 2) rank among the highest in the MLB. They do not, however, have one of the highest contact rates in the league. Their 77.6% contact rate is the third-lowest in the NL and seventh-lowest in the majors.
If Wainwright can keep Joey Votto from walking (21% walk-rate, .444 OBP in 2013) or Shin-Soo Choo from reaching base (14.0% walk-rate, .492 OBP), then we will need a term hotter than fire. Magma Wainwright, I guess?
Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.