Adam Wainwright has a great curveball. It’s probably the best curveball in baseball. Look at the curveball leaderboard, and you’ll find that he’s on top by a wide margin. Of course, if you’ve seen Wainwright, even in GIF form, you don’t need those numbers to tell you that. You know it’s a nasty pitch.
But, the curveball has always been a great pitch for Wainwright. While Wainwright has posted a career-best 2.55 FIP and 2.80 xFIP in 2013, his curveball has a slightly lower swinging strike rate than it did in 2012. Also, the curve hasn’t produced as many groundballs. Wainwright was solid, but not spectacular in 2013.
So, how has Wainwright been so much more successful in 2013 than in 2012?
Perhaps the biggest factor is that Wainwright has utilized his four-seam fastball much more frequently in 2013, throwing it on over 20 percent of his pitches. Before 2012, Wainwright didn’t feature a four-seam fastball. Even in 2012, he threw the pitch very sparingly.
The four-seamer has been a very effective pitch for Wainwright in 2013. He’s throwing the pitch for a strike 71% of the time, a higher rate than the two-seamer or sinker, whose usage has been curtailed. This helped Wainwright get ahead, and according to StatCorner he threw more pitches ahead in the count than ever before. As a consequence, Wainwright had a career-best 3.7% walk rate in 2013. Entering 2013, his walk rate sat at 6.7%.
Furthermore, the four-seamer produced swings and misses. The pitch had a 7.6% whiff rate. The sinker’s best rate was 4.2%. By run value, Wainwright’s four-seamer was the 8th best in baseball in 2013. I know, pitches exist in the context of repertoires, but consider that Wainwright’s two-seamer had a run value on par with the two-seamer of Jeremy Bonderman. That should tell you that it wasn’t his most effective pitch.
Even with the increased usage of the four-seam fastball, Wainwright has not sacrificed his groundball rate. At 49.1%, it is nearly equal to his career rate of 49.4%.
He’s throwing the pitch harder than ever. Maybe it took Wainwright more than a year to fully recover from the Tommy John injury he suffered before the 2011 season. When he threw the four-seamer in 2012, it averaged less than 90 miles per hour.
During the playoffs, the four-seamer has averaged nearly 94 miles per hour. Maybe the guns are juiced up, or maybe adrenaline is kicking in, but the pitch is up almost two miles from the regular season. Whatever the case, Wainwright is relying on his four-seamer even more during the playoffs. He’s thrown 23 innings, and surrendered only four runs, with 20 strikeouts and just a lone walk.
At age 32, and after throwing more than 240 innings during the regular season, Wainwright is looking stronger than ever. The addition of his four-seam fastball is proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Kudos to Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and Wainwright for making the adjustment.