What if Adam Wainwright Just Misses his Catcher?

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
non-Molina: 239

Molina: 19% K% – BB%
non-Molina: 12%

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

WainwrightMolina

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

WainwrightPierzynski

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

WainwrightCruz

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:

wainwrightstuff

The lines:

  • 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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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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Steve
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Steve
2 years 1 month ago

Yes, but does Yadier miss Adam?

I don't care what anyone
Guest
I don't care what anyone
2 years 1 month ago

Still think the best moment for those two was the fly ball that dropped between them for an infield single in the World Series. Two Gold Glove winners making a Little League play.

Manifunk
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Manifunk
2 years 1 month ago

So now Catcher ERA is a sabrmetric measure?

We’ve come full circle, haven’t we?

The Foils
Member
The Foils
2 years 1 month ago

I know, first they were all like “pitcher wins are stupid” and then they were all like “this pitcher is worth this many wins”

I mean make up your mind

chuckb
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chuckb
2 years 1 month ago

Yep. That’s exactly what he said.

Reading comprehension: below replacement level.

t ball
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t ball
2 years 1 month ago

Stop taking every comment so seriously, relax.

Bill
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Bill
2 years 1 month ago

Then #SaveNotGraphs

Dan
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Dan
2 years 1 month ago

Does this article even get written if the catcher is anyone besides Yadi? Also, his BAPIP through 7/7 was .251. Since, it has been .303. His strand rate through 7/7: 82.8. After: 62.1. But yeah, this is definitely because Molina holds his glove still. Or something.

isavage30
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isavage30
2 years 1 month ago

If the issue is commanding his pitches, and that he’s not commanding his pitches as well with the catcher’s he unfamiliar with, I don’t see how BABIP or strand rate refutes that argument. You’d expect degraded command to lead to a higher BABIP, and more home runs, because he’s a.) not getting ahead in the count as much and b.) missing his spots more often than he used to

Dan
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Dan
2 years 1 month ago

And my point is that it probably has very little to do with who is catching him, since we already went through that phase where we thought that CERA mattered, and it was proven to be more or less worthless. His peripherals went down in the month before Molina got hurt, and have stayed around there since the injury. I would say it’s much more likely that he’s hurt, or all the innings from last year finally caught up to him, or a .250 BAPIP just isn’t sustainable.

And again, this article isn’t being written if the injured catcher is Russell Martin or something, so to go through all of this and come to the conclusion that this is yet another way Molina is valuable seems iffy at best.

Buddhasillegitimatechild38
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Buddhasillegitimatechild38
2 years 1 month ago

So you don’t believe that strand rate and BABIP don’t go uo and down in a coinciding fashion with k%-bb% and didn’t read the immense qualifier that the author is throwing darts with a theory that is resigned to an unusably small sample size and unsure if even he believes it or you don’t believe that a catcher who has been worth 16 WAR from 2011-2013 and 2.5 WAR for half of this season is valuable since you have a misconception that he is getting Jeter level love? I don’t get it. Yadi is a great catcher and Wainwright is likely suffering more from fatigue and injury but the article while limited to a theory that won’t be able to be proven or disproven is interesting and may be on to something. Enjoy people enjoying baseball.

Buddhasillegitimatechild38
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Buddhasillegitimatechild38
2 years 1 month ago

Not sure why I put the extra don’t in the forst sentence

Dan
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Dan
2 years 1 month ago

A. I’m not sure what strand rate has to do with K%-BB%.

B. My issue is that the article is essentially arguing for CERA having some sort of value. And yes, recent studies have shown that pitch framing could be an incredibly valuable skill. But this article doesn’t touch on that. It focuses on pitch selection, and setting up before the pitch, and all the things people originally attributed to CERA, before very substantial data was used to disprove its value. If this article was on ESPN or Yahoo, sure. But on FG, it just seems off.

Brian
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Brian
2 years 1 month ago

Strand rate has a lot to do with K-BB%. After all, wouldn’t you expect a pitcher that is giving up more walks and more contact to give up more runs once runners are on base? No?

I guess the double play fairy just comes along and sets everyone’s LOB% to 72% then.

isavage30
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isavage30
2 years 1 month ago

And it very well could have nothing to do with who’s catching him. It’s impossible to know for certain, because there are too many variables. But saying his strand rate decrease and BABIP increase mean the theory is incorrect, is misguided. The symptom is his command has declined, there could be many reasons for that, but poor command is likely to lead to more walks, higher BABIP and a lower stand rate (the walks alone would lead to a lower strand rate) All of those things are related. There wouldn’t be any one number that says, “It’s the catcher” or “It’s not the catcher.” It’s an interesting theory just because of the timing of it and showing the difference between how the catchers set up.

I would also think that this could affect someone like Wainwright more than other types of pitchers. Wainwright’s a guy who isn’t a flamethrower, he relies on command. A pitcher who’s more relying on velocity and movement and throwing to a general location probably doesn’t pay as much attention to what the catcher’s doing behind the plate.

Ryan
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Ryan
2 years 1 month ago

I think that Dan is just suggesting that there is a simpler possibility; namely, some simple regression to the mean. Certainly possible. But, why would it be so shocking that losing the catcher one has thrown to almost exclusively for the better part of a decade, someone who is also widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in the game, has affected Wainwright’s performance? This article certainly doesn’t prove it, or claim to. But, suggesting that it may be a factor and suggesting a mechanism doesn’t seem crazy.

Theory
Guest
Theory
2 years 1 month ago

Well I know this site for the most part rejects any notion of psychological effects, but could that be it? I caught in the Frontier League for 7 years. I was a backup for 6 of them. My second year we had this new 19 year old kid catching and he was kind of a big deal. The scouts gave a shit about him and the buzz was he could make it if his bat could catch up. He ended up getting signed by the Devil Rays but flamed out.

So our number 2 pitcher, Chris, would ONLY pitch to me. All indications were that Brian was a better catcher than me, better receiver, had a better arm (although I always felt like he was shit at blocking and Chris threw a LOT of breaking balls down in the dirt).

Point is, Chris was convinced he needed me behind the plate in order to succeed. So I was his catcher and typically Brian started for the other 4, although doubleheaders and day games after night games obviously would change that from time to time. Maybe Chris was just an idiot for believing that. But, like Henry Ford said – whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.

Wainwright went from the best catcher of a generation to average. Consummate Professional or not, this could be a very real thing for Wainwright.

Jim S.
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Jim S.
2 years 1 month ago

Very interesting. Thanks for responding.

gnomez
Member
gnomez
2 years 8 days ago

7 years in the Frontier League? Smells fishy to me.

Hank
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Hank
2 years 1 month ago

Any other StL pitchers exhibit this effect?

Or is it just that “one of the best pitchers in the game at making adjustments” is apparently mentally fragile enough to not be able to adjust to a different catcher? (pardon the hyperbole)

I get that catchers can influence things in ways not easily measured (advanced scouting, sequencing, setup, etc) but this seems like a reach for a veteran pitcher like Wainwright.

Buddhasillegitimatechild38
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Buddhasillegitimatechild38
2 years 1 month ago

Lynn doesn’t seem to be effected. Though Lynn gets bounced between catchers more than most Cards pitchers, especially more than Waino,so the org may think Lynn is effected by which catcher is behind the plate less than most. The other pitchers have been moved around from injury so much that it’s hard to see any pattern. Cards pitching has certainly dipped since mid June but that probably has more to do with pitching injuries than Molina’s

kcl1978
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kcl1978
2 years 1 month ago

And there was even a theory for a while that Lynn got along better with Cruz, after a couple of great starts pitching to him. He’s had enough good starts since with both Yadi and Pierzynski that it’s probably just randomness, but I think it was behind some of the bouncing–the first time was just a coincidence of Yadi’s day off and Lynn’s day to pitch, but they repeated it on purpose for a little while.

JV
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JV
2 years 1 month ago

I love Yadier Molina but I really don’t buy into the fact that target placement is a thing. Wainwright is a big league pitcher. While Molina helps, the 7% diff in K-BB is nothing more than small sample.

JV? Justin Verlander?
Guest
JV? Justin Verlander?
2 years 1 month ago

Imagine throwing a dart at the bulls-eye of a dartboard. Now imagine throwing a dart at the bulls-eye of a dartboard that appears a tenth of a second before you release the dart. Good luck.

Benjamin
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Benjamin
2 years 1 month ago

If this were really important why on earth would Wainwright not communicate it to Cruz, and why on earth could Cruz not change what he’s doing?

a eskpert
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a eskpert
2 years 1 month ago

Because nobody has thought about it.

kcl1978
Guest
kcl1978
2 years 1 month ago

This. Waino’s SOP is always to blame himself, lol. He probably hasn’t noticed this consciously.

MGL
Guest
MGL
2 years 1 month ago

Ive got Yadi projected at +26 runs per 150 games in game calling, framing, blocking pitches, SB/CS, and fielding. Cruz is -7. That is a 33 run difference per 150 games which translates to around .2 in RA per 9.

So we expect Wainwright or any other pitcher to “pitch” better with Yadi behind the plate than with Cruz to the tune of .2 runs in RA per 9. That’s a lot. Add to that some small sample size good luck with Yadi and/or bad luck with Cruz, and/or perhaps some injury or tired arm with Cruz but not with Molina, and it is not all that difficult to have such disparate numbers.

gnomez
Member
gnomez
2 years 8 days ago

You have those numbers available somewhere?

Michael Sweeney
Guest
Michael Sweeney
2 years 1 month ago

Maybe this is an idiotic thought, but if presenting a good, stable target to the pitcher is so important, could catchers who are already good at this improve even more if there was a literal target painted on the glove (a baseball-sized white circle or something?)

Fernando Valenzuela
Guest
Fernando Valenzuela
2 years 1 month ago

We’re supposed to look at a target?

Juan Marichal
Guest
Juan Marichal
2 years 8 days ago

Not that I ever heard.

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