Last year, the wheels came off for Adam Wainwright. Or to put it more accurately, the narrative has become that Adam Wainwright is toast, done, etc., after a disastrous 2016. The popular refrain echoed through ADP where Felix Hernandez (SP31, 135.60) was given a mulligan for last year while (an admittedly older) Wainwright was thrown into the dollar bin (SP64, 235.83). Many of those that dismissed Wainwright probably loaded their DFS lineup with Cubs for an impending Wainwright implosion. It did not happen.
Before we examine what happened last night, which is the smallest of sample sizes, let’s take a look at what happened last year. Wainwright was a much different pitcher in the beginning of the year when he returned from injury. Through 11 starts from April through the end of May, Wainwright was striking out just 5.57 per 9, surrendering a .323 BABIP and posted a terrible 5.71 ERA. After the calendar turned from May into June, Wainwright saw a significant improvement that lasted him the rest of the season – the Ks were up 8.13 per 9, the ERA came way down to 4.10 (and the peripherals were even kinder), and he induced grounders and soft contact at a greater clip (GB % = 45.3% to 41%) (Soft% = 20.9% to 16%).
Looking at the pitch type data, Wainwright was all over the place. Clearly, he was tinkering with things from start-to-start, trying to find a formula that either worked in totality or that would work for a given opponent. He shifted back and forth between four-seam and sinker as his primary fastball, sometimes he used both equally, sometimes he ignored one almost entirely. Wainwright’s emphasis on his curveball fluctuated, as well. There were times where he would throw the pitch upwards of 30% and starts where he would just be in the teens in terms of its usage.
So what changed that allowed Wainwright to experience a strikeout surge in the second half? Wainwright began to throw the ball more outside the zone and was able to generate more swings and misses by varying his location a little more. In the 2016 season’s first two months, Wainwright was in the zone at 45.5% clip (especially early in the count with F-Strike% of 65.5%), hitters were making contact at 84.7% clip and 94.1% when Wainwright was in the zone. By throwing more outside the zone (42.6% Zone% and 59.5% F-Strike%), Wainwright was able to reduce contact both in and out of the zone and overall (down 79.7%). It would appear to be a formula that would work going forward provided he can get better defense behind him (I.E. luck on balls in play) and keep the ball in the yard.
Now, for last night, Wainwright enjoyed a surge in fastball velocity of nearly two MPH (91.7 up from 90.1). Based upon the change in the way velocity will be recorded this season (at release point as opposed to 55 feet), starting pitchers appear to be enjoying 0.5 to 1 MPH bump. Thus, Wainwright is throwing harder, but he also threw his fastball less last night (31.7%) while using the cutter as his primary pitch (35.4% with a 2.3 MPH velocity boost from 2016) and the curve at 28% (76.3 MPH, 2.4 MPH boost from 2016). This could be more of the same from Wainwright – an approach designed at stifling (or surviving) the Cubs by increasing his emphasis on breaking pitches while reducing his use of the fastball. Or it could signal the result of last season’s experimentation and tinkering with the mix. Ultimately, it all boils down to a sample size issue. We do not have the data to draw conclusions. As the adage goes, time will tell.
However, what we do know is that Wainwright was greatly improved in the second half of 2016 after scuffling mightily following his return from injury. It would hardly be surprising to see a pitcher, who was never known for his velocity (91.7 MPH would be the highest velocity of his career) rebound upon reinventing himself via changes to mix or approach or both. Especially, when that pitcher is in the NL and a pitcher’s park.
The market may have undervalued Adam Wainwright on draft day. He may have found the right stuff to succeed in 2017.