Cliff Lee pitched for the Phillies in the World Series in 2009, and though Lee and the Phillies didn’t win, the ace impressed armchair psychiatrists and industry officials alike with his apparent countenance and composure under stress. One of my favorite baseball anecdotes is that, the next spring, in a team meeting, a coach pointed to Lee and held him up as an example of how to stay balanced and perform when the pressure’s really on. It was then that Lee spoke up and said, paraphrased, “actually I damn near s*** my pants.”
In a postgame interview Wednesday night, Adam Wainwright admitted to having been nervous, given that he was tasked to start a do-or-die Division Series Game 5. Wainwright’s pitched in a World Series before, and he already had 14 games of playoff experience, but you could hardly blame him for being human. Experience doesn’t make you immune to feelings. It maybe gives you a better idea of how to handle them. Wainwright was chosen for the postgame interview because he threw a complete game to allow the Cardinals to advance to the NLCS. For the second time in two starts, Wainwright was dominant, and though there’s no such thing as an unwinnable game, Wainwright is the reason why you talk about avoiding aces in October. The Pirates technically had two chances to win this series, but this is why it felt like they only had one.
After Game 1, I wish that I could provide some sort of different angle. Some sort of original commentary on what allowed Wainwright to pitch so well for so long. The story in Game 1 was that Wainwright held the Pirates in check with a magnificent curveball, as is his calling card. I feel like all I’ve been writing about for a week is Adam Wainwright’s curveball. The story in Game 5 was that Wainwright held the Pirates in check with a magnificent curveball. It was maybe a little less consistent than in the first game, but Wainwright compensated for reduced average effectiveness with increased usage. The plan seemed to be “try to deal with my curveball,” and the Pirates never could. This is another post about Adam Wainwright’s curveball, because there’s just no helping it.
Here’s the thing. It isn’t just that Wainwright threw a lot of curves, and did well. We have complete PITCHf/x information going back to 2008, and we have partial information for 2007. It’s incredibly easy to classify Wainwright’s curve in the data, so there are no issues there. Wednesday night, Wainwright threw the Pirates 48 curveballs, out of 107 pitches. Covering the PITCHf/x era — which covers the bulk of the Adam Wainwright era — this is the greatest number of curves he’s thrown in a game. Twice, he’s thrown 45. Twice more, he’s thrown 41. The Pirates got 48, and they kept getting them because they weren’t making him pay for them. His curve really is the biggest story of the whole series.
Early on in Game 5, it didn’t look like Wainwright quite had a consistent feel. But there’s a difference between a pitcher who doesn’t have it and a pitcher who doesn’t have it for a few minutes, and the curve only got better as the game advanced, to the point at which Wainwright threw more than 50% curves over the final three innings. The pitch accounted for all six of Wainwright’s strikeouts, and for the series, it accounted for 12 of 15. Here’s a chart showing the locations of Wainwright’s curves in this series that the Pirates decided to swing at:
Three of them you might classify as hung. Each of those three were hit into play, for outs. The remaining curves were lower third or below, meaning grounders and whiffs. The Pirates swung and missed at the pitch a combined 22 times. They did hit it for three singles, but all of those came in a row in Game 5’s seventh inning. Justin Morneau grounded a curve to Matt Carpenter, and Carpenter couldn’t find his footing, leading to an infield single. Marlon Byrd grounded a curve to Pete Kozma, and Kozma dogged it, leading to an infield single. Pedro Alvarez subsequently grounded a curve to first, but the ball hit the base and popped up over Matt Adams‘ head for an RBI single. That was the damage done to Wainwright’s curve in the series. Three fairly routine grounders, none particularly well-struck.
It’s about here that I should point something out. By our measure, over the course of the season, the Pirates were the third-worst team in baseball at hitting the curve, in front of just the Mariners and the Phillies. But, granted, the Pirates changed and hit better overall in the second half, so let’s just look at that split. Over the course of the second half, the Pirates were the third-worst team in baseball at hitting the curve, in front of just the Orioles and the Marlins. All curves are different and I don’t know how much to trust these pitch-value statistics, but if the Pirates really are a team that isn’t equipped to hit the curve, curves don’t get a lot better than Adam Wainwright’s. And then for two games the Pirates couldn’t hit Adam Wainwright’s curve.
There was no more appropriate way this game and series could’ve ended than how they ended:
Three straight curves, virtually perfect, literally missed. That last .gif, in a way, is the whole series in a nutshell, although it’s admittedly light on details. The Pirates had themselves a hell of a season, and there’s no shame in getting bested by Adam Wainwright, since Wainwright’s one of the very best starters in baseball. But Wainwright just took complete control, such that for two games out of five, the Pirates looked like they didn’t belong.
Maybe for a time in Game 5, before he got settled, Wainwright gave the Pirates an opening. That opening, though, was closed quickly, and Wainwright rode a possible career-high curveball total to a complete-game win and division-series victory. To whatever extent he’s been overshadowed by Kershaw, he’s drawing himself attention at the season’s most critical time, and now over 48.2 postseason innings, he’s allowed a total of 11 runs. He’s walked seven while whiffing 50 more than that, and while we don’t know what he’s going to do to the Dodgers, now we’re going to find out, in large part thanks to Wainwright himself. As much as a pitcher can, he took this series over.
Given that he’s now approaching 260 combined innings, you might think that Adam Wainwright would be wearing down. If the numbers are to be believed, his velocity has only gone up. So there’s that. The Pirates, without question, were a lot of fun to watch. But there’s still plenty of fun talent left.
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