The matchup between the St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland A's on Saturday at O.co Coliseum was to be one for the ages.
OK, maybe that's overstating things, but it definitely looked like a good one on paper. It was going to be Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, he of the league-low walk rate, going up against the Oakland A's, the league leaders in walks. Essentially: Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object.
"We’ll see," said A's manager Bob Melvin shortly before first pitch. "Should be quite a battle, right?"
In the end, not really.
Wainwright pitched his fourth complete game of 2013 to lead the Cardinals to a 7-1 win, pushing his record to 11-5 and lowering his ERA to 2.22 in the process. He allowed five hits and struck out eight, and the majors' most patient team was only able to coax two walks out of him. Both came in the last two innings when the game was already out of hand.
In many ways, it was a typical Wainwright outing. But there's a lot more to that sentiment than what his stat line can reveal, and my credential to the game afforded me an opportunity to get the low-down on Wainwright from A's players, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and the star of the show himself.
The following is a look at how Wainwright was his usual Wainwright-y self against a formidable foe.
Throwing Strikes, Wainwright-Style
Wainwright went into Saturday's assignment with a league-low 2.2 BB%. Take one look at a number like that, and you can draw a conclusion along the lines of, "Wow, this guy must throw a lot of strikes."
He does indeed, and he was at it again against the A's.
Wainwright began the day with a strike percentage of 68.0, one of the top marks in the league. He stuck in that same neighborhood against the A's, as 78 of his 112 pitches went for strikes for a percentage of 69.6.
He was even better than that in the first seven innings, throwing 56 of 77 pitches for strikes. And there were, of course, no walks issued in those seven frames.
When I spoke to A's second baseman Eric Sogard before the game, he knew what was coming.
"That is impressive," said Sogard when I mentioned Wainwright's microscopic walk rate. "Obviously, you know he’s not going to walk you if you get in a full count or a 3-1 count. He’s going to come after you."
Indeed, but even that was a moot point in the first seven innings of Wainwright's performance. He faced 23 hitters, and none of them got to a three-ball count.
"That’s my plan," said Wainwright after the game. "Stay out of those deep counts. Stay out of hitter’s counts, and you’ll be a lot better off."
With so many strikes thrown and three-ball counts and walks so easily avoided until later in the game, you might think that Wainwright was out there pounding the zone all day. And he was, but not to the extent you might think.
Plenty of pitches in the zone, but the area outside the zone is hardly spotless either. That's emblematic of Wainwright's ability to be a strike-thrower who doesn't need to exhaust the strike zone when he pitches.
Point being: He's not Bartolo Colon. Per FanGraphs, Colon's PITCHf/x Zone% is a league-leading 60.1. Wainwright's PITCHf/x Zone% is 49.3, which doesn't even rank in the top 30 among qualified starters.
Where Wainwright ranks more favorably is in O-Swing%—that being the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone he gets hitters to swing at. His PITCHf/x O-Swing% is 35.9, second in the majors to only Hisashi Iwakuma.
Wainwright's O-Swing% against the A's on Saturday was 37.5. Next to his even 50.0 Zone%, he was basically pounding the zone and expanding the zone about as well as he has been all season.
How does he do it?
Well, for starters, it helps to have a curveball that nobody can hit no matter where it's thrown.
Wainwright's WMD: The Curveball
Every pitcher has his calling card. Wainwright's is his curveball, the pitch that once made a statue out of Carlos Beltran and is now among the game's most feared offerings.
No need to remind the A's.
"I think you always have to watch out for that curveball," said a chuckling Chris Young, who faced Wainwright a fair amount in his National League days with the Arizona Diamondbacks. "It’s one of the better ones in the game."
"He’s got one of the best in the game," echoed shortstop Jed Lowrie.
"We all know that’s his out pitch. That’s his go-to. Hopefully we’re going to be able to pick it up early and lay off of it when he's throwing it in the dirt," said Eric Sogard.
When I checked Brooks Baseball before Saturday's game, it said Wainwright was throwing his curveball 26.21 percent of the time in 2013. Against the A's, he made that number look petty.
Per Brooks Baseball, 38 of Wainwright's 112 pitches—a staggering 33.9 percent of them—were curveballs. He got five whiffs on them, more than he got on any other pitch.
You can catch a glimpse of a couple good ones in the following sizzle reel:
Sogard spoke of picking up Wainwright's curveball early and being able to lay off of it. That's a fine idea in theory, but one guy who can vouch that it's not so easy in practice is Brandon Moss.
If you watched the video, you saw Moss strike out on a curveball in the dirt in the fourth inning. Not pictured is the curveball Moss saw before that one.
It came with the count 2-2 and was about on the outside corner of the plate. Moss was able to foul it off, like so.
Here's a shot of where the next curveball was when Moss was swinging at it:
It's understandable why Moss wasn't able to lay off the curveball that struck him out. Wainwright had just thrown a curve on the outside corner that Moss barely managed to foul off. When he saw the second curveball ticketed for the same area, Moss went into protect mode. The end result was what Wainwright wanted: a whiff on a pitch Moss had no chance of hitting.
At the end of the day, Wainwright had given up only one hit on a curveball: a harmless single to Derek Norris. That came in the third inning on a pitch that Wainwright left up, but it wasn't on the inner half of the plate where Norris could have put a good charge into it. He hit it off the end of the bat and just happened to find the hole between third and short.
So chalk up another good day at the office for Wainwright's Uncle Charlie. Hitters are now hitting .164 against it, according to Brooks Baseball. And according to FanGraphs, there's not a pitcher in baseball who has saved more runs above average with his curveball.
But there's more to Wainwright's brilliance than his curveball. The guy also just plain knows how to pitch.
The Waino Guide to Being One Step Ahead
The A's I spoke to all had good things to say about Wainwright, but it was Jed Lowrie who said it best.
"He’s a great pitcher," he said. "You know you’re going to have a battle when you go up there. It’s always fun to face guys like this, because it’s going to be almost like a chess match."
When Saturday's chess match was over, Mike Matheny spoke in his office about how Wainwright was able to win it.
"When he gets a guy on base, you can see him hunting for an opportunity to roll it up," said the Cardinals manager. "But when he realizes he’s got somebody in a position where he can put them away, he starts playing around the zone a little bit more. He can really keep guys off-balance because of the discrepancy in his pitch speeds."
These points were relevant at many different stages of Wainwright's performance, but for brevity's sake, we can focus on four at-bats that show what Matheny was talking about.
First, we need to pick on poor Yoenis Cespedes. He struck out swinging three times against Wainwright, which you will have noticed if you watched the highlight reel embedded above. If you did, you saw Cespedes strike out on two fastballs away and a curveball way outside and in the dirt.
What's really interesting is how Wainwright set those pitches up. This table will tell you all about it:
|Second||Setup pitch||Curveball||Outside corner||75|
|Strikeout pitch||Sinker||Outside corner||92|
|Fourth||Setup pitch||Curveball||Below outside corner||76|
|Strikeout pitch||Sinker||Outside corner||92|
|Seventh||Setup pitch||Cutter||Outside corner||87|
|Strikeout pitch||Curveball||Low and away in dirt||75|
*Links go to Brooks Baseball.
In the first two at-bats, Wainwright slowed Cespedes' bat down with curveballs before dialing up fastballs in more or less the same locations. Cespedes couldn't catch up either time.
In the third at-bat, however, Wainwright reversed the trend. Rather than slow Cespedes' bat down with a curve before dialing things up with heat, Wainwright sped his bat up with a cutter and then dialed things down with a curveball.
What's more, Wainwright had actually thrown Cespedes two cutters in a row on the outside corner, meaning he had just seen two pitches moving away from him at high speeds on the outer half of the plate. The fourth pitch was also moving away from him and started on the outer half of the plate, forcing Cespedes into protect mode. Alas, it was a curveball, one that went way beyond his reach.
Remember what Matheny said about playing with the zone and changing speeds? Well, there you go.
The fourth at-bat we're going to look at, however, is one that proved Matheny's point about how Wainwright knows when getting a quick out is for the best.
The A's saw their first runner reach base in the second inning when a Brandon Moss ground ball got through Matt Adams at first base for an error. That brought Josh Donaldson to the plate, and Wainwright didn't mess around with him.
The first pitch of Donaldson's at-bat was a cutter that missed badly in the dirt. The next two were sinkers, and we're going to stop and take a look at the two pitches individually.
Here's a GIF that's going to show you a couple of images. The first is where Yadier Molina set up to receive the 1-0 sinker from Wainwright, and the second is where the pitch actually ended up:
Wainwright got a whiff on that pitch, but you can see that Molina set up inside only to receive the pitch out over the middle of the plate. There was no harm done, but the pitch missed its spot.
Now here's a look at the second sinker that came with the count 1-1:
Look how Molina set up to receive this sinker in pretty much the exact same place he had set up to receive the 1-0 sinker. Rather than try something else, it was almost like he and Wainwright were saying, "Darn it, let's try that again."
This time, they got the result they wanted. Wainwright's sinker was up, but it was inside enough to a point where Donaldson couldn't get the fat part of the bat on it. He got jammed and hit a slow grounder out to shortstop that went for an inning-ending double play.
Such is the difficulty of facing Wainwright. He knows how to toy with hitters when he wants to put them away, and he can get a quick out (or two) when he needs a quick out (or two).
So how do you beat him?
Simple: You wait for him to beat himself.
No, He's Not Perfect All the Time*
*Just most of the time. The trick is to jump on him when he's not.
As soon as I walked into Oakland's clubhouse, I knew there was one guy I absolutely had to talk to about that: Adam Rosales.
He was, after all, the only guy in there with a home run against Wainwright next to his name.
Because it was the first of his career, Rosales recalled the home run immediately: "The pitch I got was a fastball up. He made a mistake and I capitalized on it."
Mr. Rosales has a good memory. Straight from 2009, here's the visual evidence:
That was a fastball that was supposed to be low and away. Just like Rosales said, it was left up and he was able to put a good swing on it.
Looking for a mistake to hit when facing Wainwright turned out to be something of a familiar refrain among the players I talked to.
"You just have to be patient with him and hope he leaves something over the plate and makes a mistake," said Chris Young.
"He’s got so many different weapons out there. You just try to get a good one to hit," said Jed Lowrie.
When I told Wainwright about this after the game, he acknowledged it as a compliment. He also said on more than one occasion during his session with reporters that he was happy with his execution.
There was, however, one pitch on his mind that wasn't executed so well: a fastball that Josh Donaldson had ripped to right field for a double to lead off the eighth inning.
Here's a GIF. See if you can spot the mistake:
Uncanny, right? Just like Rosales' homer, the spot was low and away and the pitch was left up.
That's what I saw, anyway. The guy who actually threw the pitch saw it differently.
"I had him 0-2 and tried to elevate a fastball and left it a little too low," said Wainwright about the pitch to Donaldson. "Especially after a fastball before that where he had fouled it off to the right side. I wanted to come up and see if he would chase way up out of the zone."
Mr. Wainwright also has a good memory. Here's the first pitch he threw to Donaldson on 0-2:
And here's the second pitch he threw to Donaldson on 0-2 that was hit for a double:
If those look like identical pitches to you, that's because they more or less were identical pitches. After getting a foul ball on one 0-2 fastball, Wainwright left a fastball in the same spot and got burned.
That was the start of the first (and only) rocky inning Wainwright faced all day. He gave up an RBI single to Josh Reddick two pitches later, issued his first walk of the game to Coco Crisp with two outs and then went to a three-ball count on Seth Smith before getting him to whiff on a heater.
Wainwright said after the game that he had himself to blame for the eighth inning. He said he got "a little swing-and-miss happy" and got all out of whack as a result.
"There at the end, I just tried to be a little too nasty," he said. "Instead of just executing like I had all day, I just complicated things. It’s a good lesson."
Contained within is a pretty good lesson for the opposition too. If and when Wainwright deviates from his M.O., you had better make him pay.
Because knowing him, you might only get one chance.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Quotes obtained firsthand.
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