One of the things about advanced metrics is that they can tell you things you might not have guessed. The other day, for example, I wrote about a showdown between Alex Cobb and Danny Salazar, and by some of the numbers, that looked like one hell of a potential duel. Thursday, A.J. Burnett and Adam Wainwright also looked like one hell of a potential duel. Wainwright, people know about — he’d be another year’s Cy Young winner. Burnett, though, was more quietly outstanding, after being dismissed by New York. Wainwright finished with the National League’s third-best FIP. Burnett finished fifth, just in front of Cliff Lee and two of his teammates. On that basis you could argue Burnett is the Pirates’ best starter.
One of the things about A.J. Burnett is that, who knows? We’ve never really had a great measure of starting pitcher inconsistency, but if we did, Burnett would probably be at or near the top of the list. Inconsistency has long been his reputation, and so long as the potential is there for a meltdown, it can never mentally be counted out. And Thursday, Burnett melted down. In what could’ve been a compelling showdown of aces, Wainwright was ahead seven runs before he threw a pitch in the fourth. When the Pirates pulled within six, the Cardinals extended the deficit right back. Both starting pitchers showed up, but only Wainwright did more than that.
It was Burnett who allowed a seven-run third, a third in which he was removed before recording an out. It was Wainwright who cruised right through seven, with one lone blemish that few people noticed. Burnett wound up with zero strikeouts, while Wainwright wound up with nine. The game got me wondering about postseason mismatches, and though I wish I could do better than Game Score, I pretty much had to go with Game Score.
This is Game Score. You can call it arbitrary, because it’s more or less arbitrary, but it’s a thing we have and it serves a purpose and we can use it as a tool. It’s a rough gauge of starting pitcher performance, and Thursday, Burnett finished at 12, while Wainwright finished at 76. In other words, there was a gap of 64 points, and I was curious where that ranked all-time among postseason starts of differing quality. I wasn’t immediately sure how to go about finding out, but then I was, and you don’t need to know the details. All right, good sentence.
The long and short of it: Burnett vs. Wainwright is sixth all-time in terms of playoff-start mismatches. At least, that’s what Game Score says. Here, go ahead and have an informative table:
Hentgen made three career starts in the playoffs. In one, his Game Score was worse by 68 points. In another, his Game Score was worse by 55 points. Thompson made two career starts in the playoffs, with a summed Game Score of 43. Kuroda had the misfortune of running into some Cliff Lee brilliance. Volquez had the misfortune of running into a Roy Halladay no-hitter. Both Halladay and Volquez were making their playoff debuts. One of them went better than the other. This table also has Storm Davis in it.
Burnett vs. Wainwright could’ve been great. Instead, viewers were introduced to Jeanmar Gomez with nobody out in the bottom of the third, and the game was never interesting again. It’s worth touching on what made Burnett so bad, and what made Wainwright so awesome. Neither answer is particularly surprising. Burnett couldn’t locate. Wainwright couldn’t not locate, especially with his curveball.
Burnett and Wainwright both possess one of the league’s best curveballs. Burnett used his for 129 strikeouts, while Wainwright used his for 111. Only one of them, though, had the curve yesterday, and Burnett didn’t have anything. Burnett’s fastball isn’t good enough to survive on its own, and 13 of his 21 curves Thursday were balls. The third inning featured Burnett at his worst, and here’s his leadoff walk to Adam Wainwright himself:
The yellow dot is where the pitch went. Wainwright walked on seven pitches, the one curve missing badly, and that more or less set the tone. Two batters later, Carlos Beltran went deep:
Beltran never saw a curve, and the 2-and-1 fastball he swung at was elevated at the belt. Burnett didn’t miss his spot on the wrong side, but he threw high instead of low, and Beltran was all over it.
Matt Holliday followed with a double on a curve that got too much of the plate. Then Burnett hit a guy, then he walked a guy, then he walked another guy. David Freese was his last batter:
Again, Burnett found the right side, but the pitch wasn’t low enough, and Freese drilled it the other way. This might’ve been one of Burnett’s best locations of the partial inning, and still it caught thigh instead of knee. For Burnett there were some elements of bad luck, but mostly, it was just bad pitching, and Burnett will just move on, as he’s moved on from all his previous clunkers.
As for Wainwright, all you really need to know is that 11 of his 33 curveballs were swung at and missed. But you’re about to know more, including that just six of his 33 curveballs were balls, and four of those came with two strikes. Another came in an 0-and-1 count. Wainwright’s curve was doing exactly what he wanted it to, and the Pirates were by and large left looking helpless. A location chart:
Look at those 11 whiffs, and where they were. Look at the contact down in the zone. Wainwright might’ve made two mistakes with his curve — one, he left up to Clint Barmes, and Barmes lined out to third. On the other hand, it was Clint Barmes. And in the top of the first, Wainwright threw a 2-and-2 curve to Andrew McCutchen that stayed up. McCutchen, though, grounded out harmlessly, and there wouldn’t be many better chances. Wainwright got whiffs and stole strikes with his breaking ball, as he’s done all season long, because he’s one of baseball’s true aces.
You can’t not want to watch some of them:
That last one came with Wainwright behind 2-and-0. Neil Walker was looking for the fastball, and Wainwright caught him off guard, throwing a curve down the middle on purpose. Analyzing location is no good without considering context, and in this context, the whole point was to steal a strike by messing with Walker’s timing. A few pitches later, Wainwright offered a curve down and inside, and Walker grounded out to first. The curve wasn’t Wainwright’s whole story, but it was without question the protagonist.
“I think his curve,” MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen said, “was the difference in the game.”
The other difference was A.J. Burnett being a pile of crap. The Pirates wouldn’t have won even if Wainwright told them what was coming, and if what was coming was a halfhearted sinker down the middle. But, yeah. Burnett could’ve been much better, and it wouldn’t have changed the outcome. Adam Wainwright wasn’t going to lose this game, not with the way he was throwing. His curveball was as good as it could ever be, and so, in the end, the same was said of Wainwright.
The Pirates know better than to fold, and the Cardinals know better than to take this series for granted. The next game, after all, is going to have a lot of Gerrit Cole in it, and lately the Cardinals’ rotation has been fairly unreliable. But both teams know a potential Game 5 would feature Adam Wainwright. They know it would also feature A.J. Burnett. That’s not the mismatch it was on Thursday, but one team would feel better than the other.