After six starts, Adam Wainwright has looked like anyone but himself. Can he recapture some of what made him one of the game’s best pitchers before his injury?

Nobody really knew what to expect from Adam Wainwright after he spent most of the 2015 season sidelined with a torn achilles tendon. However, it is safe to say that if the Cardinals had expected an ERA above 6.00 then they would not have trotted him out with the Clydesdales on Opening Day. In his first month of action, Wainwright has displayed alarmingly high walk and fly ball rates, while batters refuse to strike out against him. With all of that being said, there is some hope that the thirty-four year old can turn things around.

Wainwright’s biggest problem is that he is pitching like someone who just missed a lot of time due to injury. His stuff hasn’t taken a hit, but his command has been off. In fact, Wainwright has not seen a drop in velocity or movement on his pitches, and batters are chasing balls out of the zone against him at the same rate that they did before the injury. On the other hand, his pitches have been reaching the top of the strike zone more often than in the past.

Wainwright’s best pitches are his sinker, cutter, and curveball, and those pitches all play better down in the zone, or below the knees. Wainwright has made a living freezing batters with a sinker that catches the corner at the knees or handcuffing left-handed batters with a cutter down-and-in. Many batters have also fallen victim to his curveball that falls right through the bottom of the strike zone. This year, though, Wainwright has been struggling to keep the ball down. If we split the strike zone into nine equal rectangles, the two spots that Wainwright has thrown to the most are the upper right section and right in the middle of the strike zone. Wainwright’s pitches outside of the strike zone have also shown this disturbing trend, as he has missed high about 1.5 times as often as he usually does. The percentage of pitches that he has thrown directly beneath the strike zone has dropped significantly, as well.

The data on Wainwright’s location so far this season helps explain what we are seeing during each of his starts. He is having trouble locating his pitches, so it makes sense that his walk rate is up by nearly 1.5 batters per nine innings this year. The abysmally low strikeout rate can be explained by both his inability to get ahead in the count and his inability to get the ball down. Wainwright has made an incredible career out of staying ahead of batters, but now that he is throwing more balls than he is used to, batters have the luxury of waiting for their pitch rather than having to swing at pitches on the corners of the strike zone. Also, a baseball is much easier to hit when it isn’t at the knees, which would explain why batters are making contact 95 percent of the time when they swing at a strike (about five percent higher than his career rate). If Wainwright gets a little bit more comfortable, then we should see those numbers start to change for the better.

When we look at some of the results-related statistics, we notice that Wainwright’s ground ball rate is down about 8% and he is giving up more home runs than normal. Both problems can be explained by the increase in pitches towards the top of the zone. Wainwright’s pitches have such great downward movement that the only way to really hit them out of the park is if the pitch is elevated. When you leave a pitch up, however, it will get hit hard. If Wainwright starts attacking the bottom of the zone again, we are going to see more ground balls off of his sinker and fewer fly balls leaving the park.

I think it’s doubtful that Wainwright ever returns to ace form, as his strikeouts were dropping even before he got hurt. However, his velocity and movement are right where the Cardinals want them to be, so it should just be a matter of time before something clicks for Wainwright. The other good news is that it isn’t just one pitch that Wainwright is getting hurt by; if that were the case then he might have to rework one of his pitches. Can you imagine Adam Wainwright without one of his sinker, cutter, or curveball? He doesn’t have to change anything mechanically; he just has to get comfortable toeing the rubber again. Once the ball starts crossing the plate at the batters’ knees again, Wainwright will start providing very effective innings for the Cardinals.

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports