Adam Wainwright May Have Found Something

You don’t need numbers to gain a sense of how Adam Wainwright’s season has started. You just need Adam Wainwright postgame quotes. After his Opening Day start, he wasn’t “anywhere close to being excited,” and called himself “the definition of average.” The next start tied his “career-high-of frustration level” because he was “so upset about the way the ball [was] coming out.” After start number three, he postulated that he’d “made more mistakes these first three games than [he had in] entire seasons.” Start four: “still not great” and “getting tired of losing.” Following his penultimate outing: “The only way I can move on from that is I have to start over. It’s a new season for me from now on.”

That’s a brief rundown of the first eight starts of Adam Wainwright’s 2016 season, in words. I said you didn’t need the numbers, but now you’re going to get them anyway. Through those eight outings, Wainwright ran a 6.80 ERA. The FIP was better, but still a below-average 4.32, and the expected FIP even worse than that. The strikeouts were way down from what we’ve come to expect, the walks were up, and too many balls were being put in the air and leaving the yard. It was the worst stretch of eight games that Wainwright had had in nearly a decade.

Wainwright being 34, and his arm having had the number of surgeries it’s had, a start to a season like that raises some questions. It raises some questions that would be tough to ask to Wainwright’s face. He probably didn’t care about the questions, but he still wanted to give some answers to make the questions stop. Consider his most recent start like the beginning of an answer.

As far as professional athletes go, Wainwright is notably candid. If his stuff isn’t good, even in a win, he’s going to say his stuff wasn’t good. A couple of those negative quotes from the first paragraph came after victories. He doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to his opinion of how he pitched. The key quote following his most recent outing: “I’m dangerous. You can say I’m dangerous again.”

That outing included 6.2 innings of shutout ball at home against the Rockies. It was his longest outing of the season, and the first one of the year in which Wainwright allowed fewer than three runs. Now, we can’t just take his “dangerous again” quote at face value and run with it, but we can at least take him at his word that he’s feeling better. And he’s feeling better because he’s been working on some things, and, at least for one start, he saw them pay dividends.

What I left out of the lede paragraph was that after starts five, six, and seven, Wainwright started mixing in some optimistic quotes, even after pitching to a poor stat line. He’d identified some flaws, and he’d began working on them. Per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold, Wainwright focused on building up leg strength, which he felt he was still lacking after last year’s Achilles injury. He slightly altered his stride to become more direct to the plate. Then, during this most recent start, the most noticeable adjustment was made, with Wainwright dropping his arm angle. He called it the culmination of his series of adjustments.

All the time, athletes will say they’re doing something different that isn’t backed up by the data, but in this case, everything checks out. Wainwright’s arm slot was indeed lower, and the difference is made clear after watching just two pitches:

WainwrightRelease

Before, Wainwright’s stride was carrying him left off the mound, and the arm has coming over the top. More recently, Wainwright’s stride is more direct toward home, with the slot lowered. “When my arm starts traveling high bad things happen,” Wainwright told Goold.

There’s numerous ways that a small mechanical change like this can impact a pitcher’s game, but everything starts and ends with the fastball, so let’s make that our building block. What follows are three images: Wainwright’s sinker location last year, when he was pitching excellently, Wainwright’s sinker location through his first eight starts before the arm-slot tweak, and Wainwright’s sinker location during Wednesday’s start, following the arm-slot tweak:

Wainwright2016

When a pitcher is throwing with an arm slot that’s higher than he realizes, it’s common for the ball to come out too soon and sail. Specifically, Wainwright mentioned the high slot flattens out his sinker. Whether sailing or flattened, the sinker was too often left up and over the middle in his first eight starts, and no one with Wainwright’s velocity is going to survive leaving sinkers where he left them. That location helps explains the career-worst rates of ground balls and dingers, and it helps explain the lack of whiffs.

The difference becomes even more apparent when you look at the fastball location game-by-game:

WainwrightSinkers

There really wasn’t a single start all season where Wainwright put his sinker where he wanted it, until this most recent one. In literally every start until then, the sinker was either up, out over the middle, or both.

Let’s sprinkle in some caveats for good measure. The ground-ball rate and the contact rate didn’t change in the Colorado game, and neither did the quality of contact. In the same Goold story from before, Wainwright mentioned the curveball as key, saying it had been the worst he’d thrown it since before Little League. While we can’t speak to Little League, some numbers support the general claim. The implication is that the curveball, along with the sinker, was “back,” thanks to the lowered arm slot. But the curve didn’t have noticeably different movement, had its second-lowest spin rate of the year, and still wasn’t located where Wainwright wants it.

The curve is what makes Wainwright Wainwright, and any potential revitalization it may have experienced in this most recent start isn’t as obvious as what happened with the fastball. But the fastball is step one, and if this one start is any indication, it might be back. Wainwright doesn’t have velocity — he’s never had velocity — and so hitting the glove with the fastball for him is even more crucial than most.

For what it’s worth, Wainwright looks like he’s got his mechanics where he wants them, and the fastball followed suit. The curve still looks like it might need to come along a bit further for the rejuvenation to be complete, and of course Wainwright could again lose his mechanics as easily as he did in the first place, but this is a start. Wainwright’s spent the year frustrated and searching. The return is still small for now, but it at least looks like he might’ve found something.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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biffyclyro2
7 years ago

He certainly found his ego. So glad to see it emerged unscathed from a disastrous start to the season.

Bigperm8645member
7 years ago
Reply to  biffyclyro2

Awesome comment. Down votes lame. Must be lots of Cards fans here

rbemontmember
7 years ago
Reply to  Bigperm8645

That must be the only explanation. Wainwright was very straight-forward in assessing his horrible start, and he was honest when discussing his upswing.

No mention of his 408-foot blast to Big Mac land … as a former pitcher, I would personally find a way to work that into every single conversation I had.