In the age of throwers, a pitcher remains


Adam Wainwright is having fun, as expected from a 40-year-old pitcher in the renaissance season. More frankly, though, he decided to have fun at spring training six months ago, when his schedule might have upset him.

For three consecutive starts, Wainwright, a right-handed veteran for the St. Louis Cardinals, found himself a match against the same opponent, the Houston Astros. Not a big problem, really, but inconvenient nonetheless – encountering the same hitters over and over again, he said, may have robbed him of the secret and allowed too many hits. .

Then Wainwright contemplated the wondrous prospects of his job. He throws four pitches – a sinking fastball, a cutter, a changeup and a knockout curveball – and of course, he can switch places. With so many looks on a single hitter, he would overload their internal hard drive and scour his scouting reports on it. He will toy with them.

Now Wainwright is 16-7 with 2.88 earned run average in 190⅓ innings. He can pitch in the playoffs for the ninth time in 16 seasons, should the Cardinals (76-69) grab one of the National League’s wild-card spots, and he stands out as a throwback—that kind of pitcher. The one who believes he has the advantage when facing a team for the third or fourth time through the order. Many teams turn to the bullpen at that point, a reflex that upsets a craftsman.

“When you reach the third or fourth time, if you Pitcher‘It shouldn’t be such a big deal, honestly, because you have so many different ways to get people out,’ Wainwright said in the dugout at Citi Field on Tuesday.

“Now, don’t get me wrong, if I can reach back and throw it 100, I’d love to try it. But there’s still pitching behind it. What a great thing to see Brandon Woodruff off the Brewers pitch: He 98 is throwing, but he’s dunking and chopping and sliding it and turning it. Man, is that fun to watch.”

This season, the batsmen have scored .227 runs on Wainwright in his first two appearances, but have scored just .188 runs in his third and fourth. He has three full games and is an active leader of the majors with 27 – historically not many, but impressive in an era when teams ask little of their starters. A lot of pitchers could avert the trend, Wainwright believes, if only they knew how.

According to FanGraph, “If you can push that hard, you already have so much potential,” said Wainwright, who averages fastball 89.1 mph, well below the league average of 93.5. “Lockdown has the potential to be the No. 1 starter for a very, very, very long time, if you can learn to pitch with that incredible stuff. I have to pitch, because if I go out there and try to heat the ball, it will be over quickly. “

For most of his role, it is. The major leaguers in 2021 are averaging just 5.1 innings and 80 starts per pitch, the lowest full-season points in recorded history. In the 2005 season, when Wainwright made his major league debut, 50 pitchers made at least 200 innings. In 2019, this number had come down to 15.

Even with teams taking more precautions this season after the 2020 pandemic, it’s shocking to see only three pitchers besides Wainwright – Zack Wheeler of the Philadelphia Phillies, Walker Buehler of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Miami Marlins. Sandy Alcantara – who has topped 180 innings this year.

The modern emphasis on strikeouts and pitch count doesn’t lend itself to durability. In 2000, when Wainwright was drafted in the first round by Atlanta, there were 466 games in which a pitcher threw at least 120 pitches. There have been five this season. The strikeout rate has increased from 6.45 per team per game in 2000 to 8.71 now.

“When you’re hitting a lot of people, you’re throwing a lot of pitches,” said Dave Duncan, 75, now retired after more than 30 years as a pitching coach, including with St. 16 are included. “For most of my coaching career, you started getting worried about pitches around 110, 115, but you thought everyone should be able to reach 125 without any problems. Okay, now you’re from 125 to 110 to 100, and you’re raising your bullpen when a guy turns 80.”

Duncan said, Wainwright was a borderline power pitcher in his prime, and he averaged more than one innings per innings (postseason included) as a rookie reliever in 2006. But still he had a sense of nuance; Wainwright’s fastball average that season was 91.4 mph, blazing pitch-to-contact staff, but barely above the league average.

This year’s staff is a strange mix: Cardinals pitchers lead the Chiefs in walks, recording the fewest strikeouts. The team sports exceptional defense but has few reliable weapons other than Wainwright; Only one other pitcher, left-hander Kwang Hyun Kim, has served 100 innings in a St. Louis uniform.

Yet despite a barrage of injuries, the Cardinals have resisted the use of scripted bullpen days, where multiple relievers tie a game together. Some of the best teams from the big companies, such as the Tampa Bay Rays, San Francisco Giants and Dodgers, often design games this way. But while the strategy can work – as a way to win the game and save money on starting pay – it reduces to an important role.

“A lot of ideas have been thrown around on how we can get the starting pitcher to be more prominent and longer, because it’s a draw,” said veteran Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller. .

“If we’re selling ourselves as an industry and we want as many fans and as many people watching on TV, what’s better: Jacob deGrom vs Adam Wainwright, or an opener and eight bullpen guys Versus a guy who’s going to end the season with 117 innings? No doubt it’s an ace pitcher. And it doesn’t have to be just aces. Starting pitcher was always a brand-name position, and we Maybe pushed a little away from it.”

Teams still value the ace; Seven of the 10 highest-paid players in the Majors in 2021 are starting pitchers. But mid-rotation starters have lost much of their earning power, and now with so many hard throwers, there’s a greater list of interchangeable (and under-paying). Pitchers who can get in for an innings or two.

Working hard, often for dozens of shifts a month, takes a physical toll; Mets deGrom, the Majors’ toughest throwing starter, dazzled for 92 innings this season, but hasn’t pitched since July 7 due to an elbow trouble. One possible solution – to save wear and tear, is to hold the key stuff back for just the right moments – which is easier said than done.

“You hear about that stuff, but a lot of people can’t do that,” said John Lester of the Cardinals, who has eight 200-inning seasons. “I don’t want to say that everyone puts in max effort, I don’t think that’s true, but I’d probably compare it to hearing PGA guys talking about their swing: They’re trying to be at 90 percent. are, almost like controlled chaos. So that’s how you want to try to be. Sometimes when you have that you try to reach back for more – but really back for nothing anymore Don’t have to reach.”

When Lester, 37, was with Boston in 2013, he defeated Wainwright twice in the World Series, which included a Game 5 duel, 1–1 in the seventh inning, with both starts still in play. Next, Lester said, he threw the cutter hard enough to bury it inside and walk away in astonishment. Now, as he approaches his 200th career win, he has essentially reversed his game plan.

But while Wainwright has also adjusted – in concert with his timeless Battery mate, catcher Yadier Molina – he is at odds with the details.

Privacy matters, Wainwright explained, citing a playoff game a few years ago. Wainwright said he read an article in which an opponent revealed plans to take Wainwright’s curveball and push it out of the strike zone. Wainwright dutifully flipped curve after curve into zone to win the game.

Amateurs often prioritize velocity and spin rate to impress scouts and college recruiters, but in order to thrive in the long run, Wainwright said, they must master the basics.

“I’ll tell you where it starts: it starts with a game of catch,” he said. “I see a lot of pitchers now – throwing Now – playing fetch instead of catch. A good game of catch is where learning to pitch really begins. “

And how does Wainwright define a good game of catch?

“You should be able to throw the ball and hit me in the chest, or get really close,” he said. “Let’s say I have a target the size of a hula hoop. You have to be able to throw a really good distance within that hula hoop, and you need to learn how to do that. It’s a skill, and for It takes practice and it takes a plan. It takes intention. It’s not just throwing.”

Wainwright grew up in Georgia, idolizing Braves Hall of Fame starter Greg Maddux and internalizing his example. Maddux was a magician of pitch movement, sculpting the edges of the strike zone, a model of efficiency for over 5,000 innings mostly for the Cubs and Atlanta.

“He was crafting it there, because that’s what it is — we’re the artists,” Wainwright said. “The real pitchers are the artists out there, and they’re painting their picture as the game goes on. There are so many different ways to get the end result. Sometimes a hitter makes you do different things, and that’s it. Pitching is – changing speed, changing angle, changing up and down, in and out, up and in, down and away.

“There’s so much fun stuff out there that people just disappear by running backwards and throwing the ball as far as they can.”

Wainwright engraved the Mets the night before. He lasted only six innings, his shortest start in a month, but it was good enough to win for his fifth consecutive start. Wainwright later trolled fans, telling reporters with a smile that he used a changeup and two curves with loaded bases to Jeff McNeil – a sly reference to his famous strikeout from Carlos Beltrán who hit Shea Stadium. Achieved 2006 NL Championship Series.

“I love nostalgia,” Wainwright said. “I gave people what they wanted.”

funny thing? Nobody even mentioned Beltran in a question. That was all Wainwright, still loving his job at age 40, because he knows how to do it in the most rewarding way possible.



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