ST. LOUIS -- Adam Wainwright insists his historic season, in terms of walks to strikeouts, happened for a very simple reason: He just decided to do it.
"I don't set many goals for myself," Wainwright told me before Wednesday night's game between the Cardinals and Dodgers in St. Louis. "But my goal before the season was to have fewer walks than starts. And I think that's a pretty reachable number, in my mind."
Sure, why not?
So far, that's exactly what he's done. Wainwright's allowed 21 walks in 24 starts, well within range of his preseason standard. Of course, exactly how impressive that is wasn't readily apparent by the matter-of-fact nature of Wainwright's statement.
Since 1901, a total of 12 pitchers have managed to walk 21 batters or fewer while making at least 24 starts. Many of these pitchers were extreme control artists who simply pitched to contact, like Carlos Silva in 2005, Josh Tomlin in 2011, or Red Lucas of the Cincinnati Reds, back in 1931. David Wells is on the list, twice, near the end of his career.
There's also some pitching royalty in this club: Bret Saberhagen's sadly shortened 1994 season, Cliff Lee's 2010, Greg Maddux's 1997. And while those three all missed bats, none of them have equaled Wainwright's eight strikeouts per nine. That's the best strikeout ratio on the list, and though strikeouts have gotten more prevalent in recent years, he's well ahead of even Maddux, Lee and Saberhagen.
So, to recap: Wainwright went out and reduced his already-low walk rate to absurdly low, and he hasn't sacrificed a bit of his strikeout rate. How did it happen?
Well, the 31-year-old with two top-three Cy Young Award finishes, coming off of a perfectly respectable 2012, decided to change the way he pitched. His sinker, his cutter and lord, that curveball, were all still present. But Wainwright added a four-seam fastball, and he's throwing it nearly 20 percent of the time this season.
A pitcher known for keeping the ball down decided to add a pitch up in the strike zone. And he's done it seamlessly, without giving back anything in strikeouts, or even in his fly ball rate, which has remained constant. He's just not walking anybody anymore.
"I think the four-seam fastball, has allowed me to throw a different look at hitters," Wainwright said. "It came about, talking to [Cardinals pitching coach Derek] Lilliquist in spring training, talking with Rob Johnson, who'd come over from Seattle, he'd caught Felix Hernandez, who used the four-seam fastball very effectively. And really, talking about me using that big curveball, it made sense to throw your fastball right at that same plane, so the only thing that doesn't come right at your eye is the curveball."
Again, I felt like I'd entered an alternate reality. Sure, Hernandez throws it more than he did earlier in his career, but he's always utilized a four-seamer. Wainwright took a look at what one of the best pitchers in baseball had succeeded with, and incorporated it, largely from scratch, into his own routine at age 31, improving dramatically in the process. And no one seemed surprised.
I asked Lilliquist if he'd been concerned at all when Wainwright came to him with an interest in changing what, judging by his career to date, sure had been working.
"I enjoy and like the idea that he's looking to do things a little bit out of the norm," Lilliquist said, holding a bat in front of the Cardinals' dugout Wednesday afternoon. "Throughout his whole career, he's been a guy who's had a steep, downhill plane. But his curveball is so big, and has such big shape, and nothing ever comes out of that same plane. So it made sense."
Lilliquist's theory is that hitters are more eager to swing now that they know the ball up might be the fastball they're eager to hit.
"From a hitting philosophy, anytime you've got a guy with a good sinker who likes to pitch down, the first thing they're told is, 'Make him get it up'. So if you get it at the other realm of the strike zone, it's a go for them, but it's a miss."
Lilliquist further believes that Wainwright's adjustment is so useful, in part, because it goes against the trend of MLB hitters in general.
"You're getting into an evolution of hitting, too," Lilliquist said. "It used to be a lot of guys were good up hitters. And now there's a lot of guys who are mid-thigh to knee hitters. And do we keep trying to force the issue down? Or just change the whole other side of it, and get some pitches up."
Lilliquist's theory is supported by the results. Wainwright has the highest first-pitch strike percentage of his career, a league-best 64.6 percent. He's inducing hitters to swing at the highest percentage of his pitches, both in the strike zone and outside of it, of his career. And yet, the contact rate on swings at Wainwright's offerings, 79.8 percent, is identical to his career rate.
So once again, Wainwright added a weapon, and hasn't dealt with any kind of significant tradeoff (other than a nominally higher line-drive rate). And Lilliquist didn't seem particularly surprised by this, either.
"It's his faith in his stuff, and his ability to command the baseball," Lilliquist said by way of explanation. "His mechanics allow him to pretty much do what he wants to do with the baseball. And he can essentially pick a third of the plate, and make the ball do a lot of different things. And in a hitting sense, that's a disaster."
His manager, Mike Matheny, downplayed the significance of this as well.
"I think he's done things very similarly to what he did when he was healthy," Matheny said during the afternoon gathering of reporters in the Cardinals dugout. "He's just added a couple of weapons. The same philosophy is there that he's always had."
But what about the historic walk rate?
"I don't think his approach is that different," Matheny insisted. "I just think he's very good right now at executing the pitches he's trying to execute."
If he continues to do that, and apparently everyone just assumes he will, there's a very tangible benefit to Wainwright's long-term career. If he's truly become a less than one walk per start pitcher at age 31, he can get away with a lesser strikeout rate, or even reduced velocity, as he ages. For a pitcher the Cardinals have signed for $19.5 million per season through 2018, that matters.
"That's evidence why we wanted him to be with the Cardinals for years to come," Lilliquist said. "Number one starter with number one command."
Wainwright, however, isn't ready to think in terms of maintenance. He's still getting better.
"I mean, I've got at least five-and-a-half more years here in St. Louis," Wainwright said of the time remaining on his contract. "I'm not thinking about the end of my career whatsoever. I think when you look at your game, as a pitcher, you're only as good as you think you can be. I think I can be very, very good at this game, if not one of the best in the game. That kind of confidence may be overstated, to some people, but for me to get the most out of what I have, as my abilities, that's how I have to think."