A High for Adam Wainwright, a Low for the Pirates

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:

wainwrightcuswings

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:

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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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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.


27 Responses to “A High for Adam Wainwright, a Low for the Pirates”

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  1. Bryan says:

    I was hoping this would be a story this morning. How did the Pirates coaching staff not tell every player, “Stop swinging at his curveball. Let it go!”

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    • Shannon says:

      That WAS their game plan. From Wainwright, after the game: “They were pretty clear what their strategy was going to be; they weren’t going to swing at any curveballs. That’s what I kept hearing. That’s OK. I can throw it for strikes.”

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      • Patrick says:

        The problem is, he rarely threw it for strikes–And the Pirates DID swing at it. It is easy to say you jut won’t swing at a pitch, but when it is disguised well it is hard to avoid.

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        • B N says:

          It can’t possibly be that well-disguised when you throw three straight in a row (cough cough Pedro Alvarez!). The problem was, Wainwright could tell that lots of the Pirates guys wanted to make the big hit, rather than being willing to work the count.

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        • chuckb says:

          Plus, when it’s thrown with 2 strikes in the count, you have to either swing or just decide to let the ump call you out if it falls in for a strike.

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        • NS says:

          I don’t think “well-disguised” refers primarily to sequencing and pitch selection, but to pitch identification out of the hand. There were plenty of fastball swings at curveballs out there last night.

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    • Jim Price says:

      The hitter has something like 0.1 second to decide to swing or not, its mostly a trained instinct and most of the time when their eye has seen a ball coming in like that, their brain says “hit it.” Except Wainwright’s curve is elite, so that instinct bites the hitter in the ___. Its a hard thing to turn off. Granted you have to make the pitcher throw in the zone to beat him but its just not as simple as it looks on TV. Just give the man his due, he has a great curveball and he knows how to use it.

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      • Bryan says:

        You’re absolutely right that his curveball is outstanding, but I still think they could have done a much better job of sitting fastball/slider.

        Anyone know where to find a boxscore where it shows # of pitches per inning?

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        • LookItUp says:

          The play-by-play beneath the boxscore on bb-ref gives the number of pitches for each batter, it’s not hard to quickly sum those up. Here are Wainwright’s pitches per inning:

          1st: 16
          2nd: 11
          3rd: 10
          4th: 13
          5th: 10
          6th: 9
          7th: 19
          8th: 8
          9th: 11

          Total, 107

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        • NS says:

          Again, it’s entirely possible to sit fastball/slider and still swing at his curveball if you fail to identify and/or adjust quickly enough.

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        • nota bene says:

          The trouble with sitting on Wainwright’s fastball is that he’s picked up a cutter since coming back from TJ.

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    • Mike says:

      Apparently they can’t hit a good fastball either, as Wacha proved.

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  2. Bill says:

    Andrew Cashner very nearly threw a perfect game against the Pirates last month and after the game basically said that no one on the team could hit a good curve. They’re a really good fastball hitting team, but it seems like anyone with a really good breaking pitch can really throw them off. If you look at their matchups against the Cardinals this year they had a ton of success against Miller and Lynn who had been able to shut down a lot of other teams with mostly fastballs.

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    • Glorpo says:

      This is confirmed by the pitch value chart. 3rd worst against curveballs behind the Phillies and Mariners. Also the worst against changeups, but 5th best against fastballs.

      So they would have been toast likely against the Dodgers anyway, who had the 2nd most valuable changeups as a team (behind the Rays) and who would likely get a couple starts out of a guy with a pretty good curve.

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  3. olethros says:

    So the Pirates need to stock up on rum and fried chicken for next year, then.

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  4. How does one add 3mph to every pitch overnight? Was the gun off?

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  5. Clint Eastwood says:

    Told you.

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  6. Uninterested Cat says:

    I assume Wainwright’s first NLCS start will be Game 3 on Monday. Dodgers are probably happy that this series went to a Game 5.

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  7. channelclemente says:

    Wainwright was simply spectacular. But, he should keep that cap away from the ball in the future.

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  8. B N says:

    I have to say that the Pirates put up a good fight, but the last at bat by Alvarez was just painful to watch. After the first curve, you could tell two things by just looking at the players:

    1. Alvarez was practicing his low-low-LOW swing to try to hit that curve before stepping into the box.
    2. Wainwright was just flat out licking his chops at throwing the curve again, knowing there is zero way you hit that for solid contact unless your name is Vlad Guerrero.

    I literally do not understand how you can see that curve well out of the zone and think “I am going to whomp that pitch.” It was just at-bat suicide. If Alvarez had been willing to work the count, he might have been able to get a hit or draw a walk. Both of which aren’t bad options when you’re down by 5 runs. Not like you get extra-credit for a 3 run HR when you have 1 out to get 5 runs.

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  9. Rule of Law says:

    “Three straight curves” intentional?

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