A Deep Look at Adam Wainwright's Ridiculous Start
Two nights ago, Adam Wainwright was a hit away from tossing a perfect game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. You know, that thing only 23 pitchers have ever done in the history of the game. But that was just one of the many remarkable starts the two-time All-Star has had this season.
Wainwright has shutout his opponent in 5 of his 10 games so far, including a 25-inning scoreless streak. In that time, he’s pitched less than seven innings only twice, while going eight-plus four times. The only times he's given up more than two runs was against the Chicago Cubs - the team with a league-low 16 wins has somehow been Wainwright's kryptonite. In fact, if you remove his three starts against the Cubs, Wainwright has only given up three runs in 55 innings. That's an ERA of 0.49 while averaging close to eight innings a start.
But even if you include those Cubs games, his numbers are still mind-boggling. He's sixth in the league with 1.8 wins above replacement (WAR), has a 1.85 ERA and 2.50 fielding independent pitching (FIP), with those last two figures being career-bests for the righty. So what has he done right so far?
For starters, he has the best strikeout percentage (K%) of his career at 23.6 percent, even if that’s just a tad more than the 23.4 percent figure he put up in 2010 – that season was his previous best ERA figure at 2.34. Even his walk percentage (BB%) is the second-lowest of his career at 5.4 percent.
Now here come the crazy numbers: he’s held opponents to a .185 average this season and a WHIP of 0.86! He’s even stranding runners at a high rate. He has a left on base percentage (LOB%) of 81.9 percent, another career high. So the few amount of baserunners he has had to deal with, don’t cross the plate very often.
So has Wainwright changed anything drastic?
The short answer is, everything. Wainwright has admitted to changing his approach as a proactive way to improve. He has used his four pitches - a four-seam fastball, curveball, sinker and cutter - masterfully. He's mixed location, speed, movement and overall approach to keep hitters off balance. It's led to some interesting results.
Wainwright has seen his fly-ball rate climb from 27.5 percent to 34.6, and logically has seen a dip in his groundball numbers. But Wainwright has also seen a drop in the percent of line drives he gives up, and has a spectacular home run-to-fly ball rate (HR/FB) of just 4.6 percent. So despite the increase in fly balls, he’s actually giving up the lowest number of home runs in his career, averaging just 0.37 per nine innings.
Here’s where things get a little worrisome. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .234, which is way below the league average. And while some pitchers are better at inducing weak contact, the lowest number he’s ever had in a season was .272 back in 2008. So it’s likely that .185 average will creep up, as well as the LOB% of 81.9 percent.
But perhaps that's missing the point. Wainwright has clearly kept batters off balance at this point in the season. His numbers are showing that, even if they also might mean some luck is involved.
The big key will be whether he can keep that HR/FB rate low. While his 4.6 percent is well below the league average of 9.5 percent, it’s not unthinkable to see numbers that low. Matt Harvey had a 4.7 percent last season before he landed on the DL. But only eight pitchers had rates below seven percent, and only three were below six percent last season.
Last year, this new approach almost led to a Cy Young award for Wainwright, but unfortunately he had to pitch in the same league as Clayton Kershaw. This season, he's seen his numbers improve once again, and should be right in the middle of the Cy Young conversation when the season comes to a close.