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After a decent season debut, Adam Wainwright reverted back to 2016 form on Monday night against the Washington Nationals. He was hit hard, giving up six runs on eleven hits in four innings. He didn’t miss hardly any barrels or bats, generating only six whiffs on 96 pitches. So far there’s no reason to think anything will be materially different than last year, which leaves us wondering what went so wrong so quickly.

Much of the problem last year, quite simply, is explained by Wainwright’s contact quality allowed. Grounders are the least valuable type of batted ball, and he induced them at a career worst rate of 43.8%. He allowed hard contact at a career high rate of 31.2% of batted balls. Additionally, he saw a 4.4% drop in induced chase rate (O-Swing%) compared to his average from 2012 to 2014.

Overall, it just looks like hitters are seeing Wainwright better and squaring him up more than they ever have. Pinning down exactly why they’re hitting him better, however, is a difficult task. For one, it might just be a run of bad luck; or, instead, it might be because his repertoire is seriousl

y declining.

Adam Wainwright – Repertoire Breakdown

Adam Wainwright St. Louis Cardinals
For horizontal movement from right-handed pitchers, a negative value indicates arm side movement and a positive value indicates glow side movement. Source: Brooks Baseball.

I’ve purposely excluded Adam Wainwright’s changeup and slider above, simply for the fact that he doesn’t throw many of them.

The first red flag is spotted after a quick look at Wainwright’s fastballs. He throws some combination of a fourseamer, sinker, and cutter approximately 70% of the time, and each have shown gradual velocity declines since 2013. While a difference between 1 and 3 mph may not seem like much, it can have a significant impact without strong command or movement. Unfortunately, Wainwright’s fastball movement has not improved with the decline in velocity, nor has his command.

Adam Wainwright’s command struggles are most obvious when looking at his fourseamer against right-handed hitters and his sinker against left-handed hitters, although it’s still an issue when looking at the fourseamer against LHH and sinker against RHH. His cutter location, on the other hand, remains very strong; I’ll touch on the importance of that in a moment.

St. Louis Cardinals Adam Wainwright
Source: Baseball Savant.

Looking at the fourseamer strictly against RHH, we can see that Wainwright’s location heatmap has, in a sense, rotated a few degrees counter-clockwise. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the cores are still in relatively good locations. The problem is that his command has become more erratic. This is illustrated by the increase in concentrated yellow areas outside the zone beginning in 2016, especially off the left edge and above the zone.

St. Louis Cardinals Adam Wainwright
Source: Baseball Savant.

Again, we see a similar problem here with the sinker against LHH. While the core remains in effectively the same location, the variance outside the core has increased substantially. He’s missing over the heart of the plate more often and giving batters a better pitch to hit. Consequently, lefties isolated slugging percentage (ISO) against the pitch has risen more than 50 points from .136 to .188.

St. Louis Cardinals Adam Wainwright
Source: Baseball Savant.

I’m including the cutter here to show a positive. Adam Wainwright has maintained an almost perfect location with his cutter. As a result, hitters batting average and ISO against the pitch have both dropped about 20 points. Hopefully his continued command of the cutter means there’s a chance he can regain control of his other fastballs.

The combined result of the fastball velocity declines and command struggles show up in pitch value, measured by wFB and wCT. Back in 2013, Wainwright’s fastballs combined to be worth 25.4 runs above average, fifth best in baseball. In 2016, they combined to be worth 5.6 runs below average. Focus on just his fourseamer and sinker, and Adam Wainwright had the third worst fastball in the MLB last season.

Wainwright’s cutter, on the other hand, ranked as the second best in the MLB last year thanks to its ideal location, even though it’s velocity was down. If Wainwright can regain command of his fourseamer and cutter, hopefully he will show a similar ability to establish those pitches.

That’s to say nothing of his curveball, which is quickly becoming a shadow of its former self. It was flat at the beginning of last season, it was flat at the end of the season, and it’s been flat so far in 2017. As a result, it’s gone from the second best curve in baseball to the nineteenth best. Last year, hitters managed an 84 wRC+ in at-bats ending with the curveball, and that mark was nearly 50 points worse than Wainwright’s previous career worst 39 wRC+. So far this year, hitters are 4 for 9 against it, and four of the seven balls in play were hard line drives. The Wainwright curveball was no longer dominant, and it certainly was not good enough to compensate for a terrible fastball.

I worried this offseason that Adam Wainwright may have simply hit a career wall in 2016. He’s now entering his age-35 campaign, and there’s significant evidence that pitchers hit a steep drop-off around 35 years old. It’s hard to imagine such a fast decline for a former ace who was the sixth most valuable pitcher in baseball from 2009 to 2014, even while missing an entire season to Tommy John Surgery. Yet, unfortunately, that is likely a reality the St. Louis Cardinals will face this season.

Credit to Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball for the data used in this post.

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