Adam Wainwright would tell you himself: he’s currently in a funk, and he’s been in a funk for about a month and a half. It’s not like you have to dig very deep to find out why he feels that way. After blanking the Pirates on July 7, Wainwright’s ERA stood at 1.79. Since then, it’s been in the mid-4s. Through July 7, he threw 67% of his pitches for strikes. Since then, he’s come in at 62%. The walks are up, the hits are up, the strikeouts are down, and Wainwright’s frustrated, looking for clue after clue so he can get back to what he was. They say no one in baseball’s better at making adjustments than Adam Wainwright. He’s still looking to make the right one for this most current slump.
It feels like this could be easy to explain. Wainwright’s almost 33, and he’s had Tommy John surgery before. Last year he threw just about 300 innings, which is an extraordinary total, and earlier this season he missed a start with non-UCL discomfort in his elbow. He’s also pitched through illness and a sore back without alerting the media, so it could be he’s still feeling something and not owning up to it. Injury, fatigue, fatigue leading to injury — we don’t know. It could be anything. But what if the answer’s a different sort of simple? What if Adam Wainwright just misses pitching to Yadier Molina?
Rewind to July 7, again. Wainwright worked seven scoreless innings against Pittsburgh. His catcher was Yadier Molina. In the start before that, he worked 7.2 scoreless innings against San Francisco. His catcher was Yadier Molina. Until Molina got hurt, he’d caught all but one of Wainwright’s starts on the season. But, on July 12, it was Tony Cruz. On July 22, it was Tony Cruz. On July 27, it was A.J. Pierzynski. Molina right now is on the way back, but his absence correlates just about perfectly with Wainwright’s statistical issues.
Which could very well just be a coincidence. I don’t really know what to think, here. But I’m at least open to the idea that Molina has more to do with Wainwright’s slump than we’d ordinarily figure. Molina caught Wainwright almost exclusively in 2009, and in 2010. Wainwright missed all of 2011, but here’s what happened, broken down by catcher, between 2012 – 2013:
Molina: 1,548 plate appearances
Molina: 19% K% – BB%
The non-Molina category is pretty much all Cruz, and while this doesn’t prove anything, it does provide interesting background considering what we’ve seen the last couple months. Wainwright’s K% – BB% has gotten worse, without Molina catching him. The same is observable in very recent history.
What might be going on? There are a few things. Molina is considered maybe the premier game-caller in baseball, so that could be a thing. Framing appears to be a thing — according to the numbers at Baseball Prospectus, Wainwright was received well by Molina, but he’s been received less than well by Cruz and Pierzynski. That’s not a surprise. But I also want to talk about targets. This gets into something pretty subtle, and again, I’m not sure how much I buy this, but here’s Wainwright talking to Tyler Kepner:
“[Molina] sets up his target as wide as he can, puts the target right in the middle of his body, and he doesn’t move. A lot of catchers, you’ll see them give you the target and then drop their glove for a little bit and then pull the target back up. So if you’re a pitcher like me that follows the glove, you’re trying to hit a moving target as opposed to a very still glove, which is a lot easier to do.”
Let’s examine a few Wainwright/catcher .gifs from this season.
Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina
Molina shows a big target early, before Wainwright’s hands are at his belt. There the target remains, through release. Wainwright gets to focus on a spot.
Adam Wainwright and A.J. Pierzynski
Pierzynski, here, does hold his target. But he’s moving around after Wainwright begins his delivery, and he doesn’t actually show a target until after Wainwright has broken his hands. As Wainwright looks in to home plate initially, he doesn’t have a spot to focus on.
Adam Wainwright and Tony Cruz
Like Pierzynski, Cruz doesn’t actually show a target until after Wainwright is reaching back from his glove. Then Cruz’s glove dips in advance of Wainwright’s release, so he doesn’t hold the target, as Wainwright talked about above. There’s just a lot going on here behind the plate. Cruz moves around, then he shows a target, then he moves the target, all while Wainwright is trying to focus on where to throw the baseball.
The argument wouldn’t be that Wainwright is totally a product of Yadier Molina. The argument would be this: with Molina, Wainwright has the best idea of where to throw the baseball. With these other catchers, Wainwright gets a later target and far more often a moving target. So it’s a little harder to spot, and while it’s not like Wainwright completely loses his location, it would be a matter of percentage points. If Wainwright has a little more difficulty locating with a catcher who isn’t Molina, then that could go a long way toward explaining this slump, because the difference between a good Adam Wainwright and a worse Adam Wainwright isn’t all that dramatic pitch to pitch.
It’s not like other stuff stands out. Wainwright’s release points haven’t changed much. His velocity is down just a little bit, but it’s also better than it was in 2012. The red flag isn’t among the indicators — it’s the performance. Let’s now look at a chart, if you don’t mind. This tracks Wainwright month-to-month from the beginning of 2012:
- First-pitch strike rate
- Rate of strikeouts on two-strike pitches
- Zone rate
- Rate of pitches below two feet
We can go in order. Within the sample, this past July featured Wainwright’s lowest rate of first-pitch strikes. He’s recovered only a little bit. So he’s fallen behind more often, but even when he’s been ahead, he hasn’t been so good at putting people away; July saw his lowest rate of strikeouts on two-strike pitches. August has seen his second-lowest rate. In July, Wainwright’s zone rate was a little low, and his strike zone was less forgiving. So perhaps to counter the difficultly getting strikes, Wainwright has rebounded to post his highest zone rate of the sample in August. He might just be trying to pitch within the zone, rather than spot too much. At last, look at that rate of low pitches. Wainwright’s been in the strike zone in August, but he’s also thrown his lowest rate of pitches under two feet, and that’s where he can get a lot of swinging strikeouts. His stuff in August has been in the zone and elevated, which could explain the .283 batting average allowed.
I repeat: this is all a theory. I don’t even know if I believe it. I just know I’d be willing to believe it. There are plenty of ways you could explain Wainwright’s slump, and maybe he really is just hurt or tired. Or maybe he misses pitching to Yadier Molina, because with Molina, he’s better at locating his pitches and that’s Wainwright’s whole game. That’s almost everyone’s whole game. Maybe he doesn’t really know how to pitch to Cruz yet. Maybe he pitches differently, with different target behavior and with different borders of the strike zone. We should know more soon, with Molina on the way back from the disabled list. It could be Wainwright is a teammate away from turning things around. Maybe not, but I feel like if I’m going to believe that theory about anyone, it would be about Yadier Molina.
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