Wainwright is a talented pitcher who, when on, has some of the best ability in the National League. However, he is also coming off Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss last season. And other outlets have noticed that in September, he went through a bit of a rocky phase. So what’s up?
Going 14-13 this year, Wainwright saw his 2012 K and BB rate largely mirror his recent career rates in both figures: 8.34 K/9 and 2.36 BB/9, very close to his 2009 and 2010 numbers.
What is different, however, is his tendency to give up the gopher ball. In 2009, 8.3% of flyballs hit against him left the yard. In 2010, where he accumulated a career high 6.1 WAR (or, if you’re more into ERA and W’s, he pitched to 2.42 and 20, respectively), only 7.9% of flyballs went JUMANJI!. However, nearly 10% of his flyballs are going for home runs this year – a pretty appreciable difference.
If we normalize his HR rate, he looks less like the ~4ish ERA pitcher and more like a 3.2 ERA pitcher. Also not helping his ERA? He’s allowed 32% of runners on base to score, whereas in ’09 and ’10 he only allowed ~20% of baserunners to cross the plate. The average big league pitcher allowed 27.5% of baserunners to score in 2012.
So, something has been going on from the stretch this year, and he’s allowed more rounder-trippers than usual. Random variation? This is possible. Let’s see if any numbers or other pitch information stand out.
Batted Ball Profile
BABIP is a fairly "new age" statistic that is gaining some traction, and for good reason: is a ball hit hard, but right at a fielder? (Nats fans nod knowingly). Does a pitcher generate a ton of infield fly balls consistently? Is it Livo? All of these questions affect how we should view BABIP as either luck or something close to how a pitcher profiles.
BABIP is lowest for infield fly balls – it is here where Atlanta fans cringe – and more normal fly balls. Grounders go for hits more often than fly balls, but less than line drives. ESPN provides some useful information here to show these averages (2011 data):
Ground balls (45.6 percent of all balls in play last season): .233 BABIP
Fly balls (35.9 percent): .152 BABIP
Line drives (18.5 percent): .707 BABIP
Wainwright’s BABIP is .315 for the year, versus .297 for his career (MLB average BABIP was .293 in 2012). "HE’S SO UNLUCKY" say our friends at Viva El Birdos (ASIDE: I actually find this a well-written article, and many at Federal Baseball will find the conclusion in the post...amusing? frustrating?: "More likely, however, Pete Kozma has just been lucky as hell this year at the plate." Well then.).
It is certainly possible that he's been unlucky, but it is also plausible that the big W has traded in some flyballs from ’09 and ’10 for line drives – the BABIP inflator. Check it:
2009: LD – 19.1%/ FB – 30.2%
Yea, this could explain the increase. What is curious is that although he is giving up less flyballs, more of those are going for home runs on a percentage basis. However, his HR per 9 average has remained consistent this year, so the increased HR/FB percentage appears to be due to him getting less fly balls on the whole. He's not really more prone to the HR after all.
What’s the dude throw, how often, and how fast?
Sinker/Split – 36.2% usage, 90.1 MPH
Cutter – 27.5%, 86.6
Uncle Charlie – 24.6%, 73.6
Change-up – 6.2%, 83.7
Fastball – 5.3%, 89
What is his best pitch?
To anyone that saw him strike out Beltran in the playoffs several years ago, this will come as no surprise: the curve ball is an absolute hammer, worth 11.8 runs above average.* In other words, where we would expect teams to have scored this many runs over the course of the regular season based on the base/out state and associated run expectancy, this pitch has taken those opportunities off the table. He’s in good company: it's the second-best curve ball in the league, behind Clayton Kershaw and tied with Justin Verlander.
His fastball hasn’t been shabby either, at 4 runs above average. Looks like he uses it sparingly, but effectively. His change isn’t all that great, at -5 runs below average. Likely just a show-me pitch. The sinker is relatively neutral, almost a run above average. It’s the staple strike offering. The cutter is below average.
When does he throw his pitches?
Brooks Baseball is clutch.
HIGH USE 10% Above Baseline
LOW USE 10% Below Baseline
Lefties get the sinker early, curve late. Righties are largely the same. But this shows us exactly how much confidence he has in the curve - if he's ahead, the Nats can reasonably expect something bendy.
Heat Maps, and other colorful things
Wainwright locates his curveball against right handed batters middle, middle-low, and mostly low-away with consistency. Lefties get it, from their perspective, middle-away and low-away. See for yourself (yellowish areas represent greater frequency of pitches in that area):
Versus Righties (view from catcher):
Versus Lefties (view from catcher):
(images courtesy of FanGraphs)
Here is how his pitches look from above:
If we’re set up for a curveball, it would be wise for our fellas to look away, likely low and away, and avoid temptation to chase (you can see how he buries it to RHB low, away, and way out of the zone with some frequency).
He leaves his sinker mostly over the plate, albeit occasionally low and sometimes inside, against RHB. Lefties are worked away, away, away with the staple. Harper, Espi and LaRoche can have success if they get this offering away and keep their weight back.
The cutter works on the corner to righties, up and down the zone, and inside to LHB, although not terribly much. Honestly, I’m more optimistic about our LHB turning on one of these boys given their location than I am about their pounding the sinker. Also, it’s a below-average pitch.
It’s going to be about patience
tomorrow today, which is fitting considering Werth’s dogged effort and heroics last evening. Wainwright is going to go to the curve when he gets in "out-counts" – 1-2, 2-2, 3-1, 3-2 (heck, pretty much any time probably) and it will be up to the boys to identify ones they can hit and avoid giving up strikes (or outs based on weak contact for that matter).
LaRoche, Desmond, the Shark, Harper, and Werth all have positive run values against the curve this year. Espinosa, unfortunately, has not been that good, costing the team 3.5 runs in a normal base/out state environment. Also keep in mind that ALR, Morse, Harper, Desi, and Zim have murdered fastballs over the course of the year.
If Wainwright likes to go fastball early and offspeed put away, and the Nats can ID hittable pitches early in the count, their track record against hard stuff makes me think we may see early swings (and hopefully success). If Wainwright wants to pitch off the curve, then a more prudent approach is best, and in any case for the first inning or two this should be the case.
I believe Wainwright did not pitch as well as Lohse this year. If he pitches like his season numbers (and who really knows), we should have some success provided we don’t beat ourselves fishing for curveballs low and away.
*If you're interested in reading more about run expectancy and different base out states (just how many runs DID Nady cost us when he had runners on?), see this link.