Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/13/12

There’s a natural ebb and flow to every pitcher’s season, but it comes in fits and starts instead of the smoother information stream that a position player provides. So, every five days, our brains attempt to fit a narrative over these disparate pieces of information. That’s natural, if not always useful.

Take Adam Wainwright for instance. In his last three starts, he’s given up 13 earned runs, 16 total runs, 31 baserunners, and a 14-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13.2 innings. It’s tempting to call that a wall. But what about the three-start stretch at the end of June, when he gave up 12 earned runs, 28 baserunners and had a 18-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17.1 innings? That was just a bump in the road now that we’ve seen what he’s done since.

Of course, those numbers are not completely equivalent. And if we drill down further, we might find cause for concern when it comes to the Tommy John returnee in St. Louis.

The first place we look for a problem — and yes, that is what we are doing here — is in fastball velocity. Recent community research here has affirmed that velocity is the most important aspect for a fastball, and changes, at least anecdotally, seem to suggest something could be wrong. Adam Wainwright’s sinker looks like it might be down a tick, from an average over 90 to an average just below 89:

But there is a natural cadence to the velocity of a fastball over a given season. We’ve found that velocity peaks in August, for example. Maybe he’s just receding off a peak. It’s worth noticing that the movement is largely unchanged, and the outcomes on the pitch still include a double-digit whiff percentage and a good ground-ball rate. If a mile per hour off a sinker is the harbinger of doom, there might be more pitchers headed towards an unmovable barrier of some sort.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a pitch that’s looked different recently. Check out his cutter. It’s gained velocity, but it’s also gained about an inch of movement in both directions. More importantly, he’s using it less. He went from using it over a quarter of the time against righties to about a fifth of the time in his last three starts. That’s only 266 total pitches, but it looks like he’s using it less. More importantly, the whiffs have disappeared. He’s thrown 22 cutters to to righties in his last three starts, and not one has swung at the pitch and missed.

To the videotape!

Here’s a swing and a miss at a cutter on the seventh pitch of the game on the 21st of August. The pitch had little vertical movement and about seven inches of horizontal movement, and left Wainwright’s hand at 88.9 mph.

Here’s a foul ball from a cutter on the eigth pitch of the game on Tuesday. This pitch had three inches of vertical movement and six inches of horizontal movement and left Wainwright’s hand at 89.4 mph.

Even if it’s hard to compare the two with the different angles (kudos to the Cardinals and their video crew), these don’t look very different to the untrained eye. The Padres announcers mention arm slot issues, but his release points from the 21st (left) and the 11th (right) are pretty much identical:

Thirty-plus starts a year means thirty-plus detailed recaps of a pitcher’s work. These two starts were separated by less than a month, but by a chasm in narrative. In one, he was dealing — the announcers previewed the game by talking of putting the Cardinals on his shoulders in September. In the next, he was scuffling — the announcers focused on his arm slot and talked of his troubles. And yet, the difference between the two, in terms of process, doesn’t seem huge.

He lost maybe a mile per hour on his sinking fastball. Much of baseball loses a little gas in September. Maybe his cutter is a little ineffective right now. It’s probably happened before. If the Cardinals are going to shut down their pitcher in the midst of a pennant race, well, Rob Neyer quoted Orel Hershiser on Stephen Strasburg today, and it seems appropriate here. Let’s hope it’s these kinds of inputs that are informing their decision, not a few bad outings and a temporarily soggy cutter:

Well, I hope they’re making the decision on objective data. Just not an eye test and just not an innings count, because the objective data of a shoulder program, having benchmarks from spring training of where his strength was, what his internal and external rotation of his shoulder, the elbow, how was the flexibility there, the wrist, the whole lever system of the arm works together…


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