An Inconclusive Adam Wainwright Investigation

The Cardinals need to win Thursday night, and in theory there’s no one they’d rather have on the mound than Adam Wainwright. But, for one thing, they actually need to win three in a row, so it wouldn’t matter which of those three games Wainwright were to start. And more relevantly, Wainwright hasn’t exactly been himself, which maybe doesn’t come as a surprise given that he’s eaten innings like the Royals outfield eats fly balls. During the season, Wainwright went through and then seemingly emerged from what he termed a dead-arm phase, but his playoff struggles leave the Cardinals in an uncertain situation.

After Wainwright was bad against Los Angeles, the talk was that he had something of an elbow issue, and that was causing him discomfort. That also, in turn, caused fans of the Cardinals discomfort. After Wainwright was a little less bad against San Francisco, people wondered about the elbow thing, but Wainwright swore it was more mechanical, and that his elbow was fine. So what ought we believe, going into Game 5? We should establish here that, no matter what, Wainwright needs to get over something if the Cardinals are to survive. But must he conquer discomfort, or must he conquer a mechanical problem? Let’s investigate, inconclusively.

After Game 1 of the NLCS, Wainwright spoke up. From Stan McNeal:

Wainwright said that after exiting he watched video with backup catcher A.J. Pierzynski and they noticed that the release point for the 6-foot-7 right-hander was off. Wainwright said that he was “dramatically late getting the ball out of my glove.”
“That doesn’t allow your arm to have time to get into the proper position to throw the ball,” Wainwright said. “My stride length is about a foot shorter than it should be, so it’s not getting my arm enough time to get where it needs to be.”
That he was able to throw an effective cutter had to be encouraging because it is considered a pitch that puts more stress on the arm than a curve.

Wainwright didn’t just cite general mechanical issues — he went into specifics, identifying his hand separation and his plant foot. That seems like it would be a strange thing to just make up, so, let’s see. What evidence do we have that Wainwright genuinely felt better against the Giants than he did against the Dodgers? That is, aside from his own words, since players lie sometimes.

Well, there’s one big thing. Wainwright said he was having issues throwing his cutter against the Dodgers, indicating that it aggravated his arm. And, because his cutter wasn’t there, and because he didn’t have good fastball command, the Dodgers started looking for his curve. If the cutter bothered Wainwright’s elbow, and if Wainwright’s elbow were still an issue, it stands to reason he wouldn’t have thrown many cutters to the Giants. Except, at least according to Brooks Baseball, Wainwright threw a ton of cutters. As a matter of fact, that site claims Wainwright threw 48% cutters, which would be his highest single-game cutter rate we have on record, by more than six percentage points. Wainwright didn’t just feature the cutter: he featured it heavily, more heavily than ever, and that would be weird for a guy with a hurt elbow to do. I’d understand maybe 20%, 25%. But just about 50/50? It’s almost like he was making an in-game statement that his arm was all right.

We can also consider the matter of Wainwright’s location. Single games aren’t perfect samples, since single games don’t present a representative sample of opponents, but we can make do. Against the Dodgers, Wainwright’s location was way off. His average fastball was eight inches higher than it was during the season. His average cutter was six inches higher, and his average sinker was seven inches higher. His average curve was 11 inches lower. Wainwright was clearly fighting it in the NLDS. Against the Giants, though, Wainwright’s average fastball was at its normal height. His average cutter was closer to its normal height, and his average curve was closer to its normal height, and he hardly threw any sinkers. Against the Dodgers, Wainwright was missing up and down. Against the Giants, if anything, he was missing over the plate.

So those would be indications that Wainwright didn’t feel much in the way of discomfort in Game 1. But how about his cited mechanical issues? Do those stand up to scrutiny? I’m not an expert on pitching mechanics, and I’m certainly not as much an expert on Wainwright’s mechanics as Wainwright, but I can tell you this much: nothing about his delivery stands out as obvious.

Below, two pitches, one from Wainwright in May and one from Wainwright last start. I assumed that, in May, Wainwright was feeling great and pitching great (he was pitching great).



I’ve slowed these down, I’ve looked at them frame by frame, and I don’t know what to tell you. Just because I’m not showing you a bunch of different screenshots doesn’t mean I haven’t looked at them. It seems like the hands separate at the same point and time. It seems like the foot gets down at the same point and time. The follow-throughs are similar. The arm actions are similar. Mechanical issues can be very subtle, but if they’re present, they’re so subtle I can’t find them. Not in these two pitches, anyway.

How about the stride length? Here are two not-entirely-comparable pictures, one from the year and one from last game:



The angles are different, so it’s hard to tell much from those. What if we were to try this a different way, and look from above? Allowing this to happen is the knowledge that pitchers leave a mark where their front feet get down, and the locations are consistent pitch to pitch.



See the dark smudge in front of the rubber? That’s where Wainwright’s foot was going. That’s also where the other guy’s foot was going, so that’s a variable, but the smudges here are consistent. Wainwright alleges that, in Game 1, his stride was something like a foot shorter than usual. In the top image here, the darkest part of the smudge is about 52% of the way down from the rubber to the grass, in terms of pixels. In the bottom image here, the darkest part of the smudge is about 51% of the way down from the rubber to the grass. That seems a little bit shorter, but there are error bars here, and also the difference is less than two pixels. Certainly doesn’t seem like a whole foot. I feel like we’d be able to detect a change of a whole foot.

So we’re stuck wondering. There’s evidence that Wainwright’s elbow was feeling fine, but it’s also hard to pick up on any of the mechanical things Wainwright discussed. Now, a big issue here is that mechanical issues aren’t always consistent pitch to pitch. So looking at samples of one or two pitches might not help, because you need to look at whole innings or games. That’s true, and maybe Wainwright was identifying particular issues with, say, pitching from the stretch. He knows his mechanics, and I don’t know them so well, and only he knows what does and doesn’t feel right.

Yet if we came into this worrying about Wainwright, I think it makes sense to still be worried. If nothing else, he’s admitted his arm isn’t totally 100%. And even if it’s true, what he said about his mechanics, maybe that can’t be fixed between starts, because maybe he’s just fatigued, and more fatigued than the average pitcher on account of his workloads. Fatigue isn’t something that necessarily affects every single pitch, but it will presumably have an effect on mechanical consistency, which is everything. Injuries manifest as inconsistent mechanics. Mechanical issues manifest as inconsistent mechanics. And a more inconsistent Wainwright is a less effective Wainwright, no matter the reason. Maybe it’s silly to fret so much; September Wainwright was awesome four straight starts. But September feels like more than weeks ago.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Nice read. How about the other pitchers in this series that appear to be hurt? Neither Lincecum or Wacha have thrown a pitch in the postseason and yet they have both maintained roster spots. Lincecum’s velocity has been down quite a bit despite his move to the bullpen. I guess there are plenty of possibilities with Timmy, but I mean for Wacha I see no other explanation.