By Jack Etkin
Despite a solid 2013, Adam Wainwright had two outings that were troubling. One so-so start in the middle of last season and one bad start in the World Series convinced him that he had to start working both sides of the plate. It became his offseason priority, and the St. Louis Cardinals' ace has implemented it with great success.
He is having an exceptional season -- the norm for Wainwright -- but despite statistical brilliance similar to recent years, this has been Wainwright's most satisfying because his improvisational mastery has enabled him to take his craft to sublime heights.
"Last year, I was a left-side-of-the-plate dominant pitcher. I was having success against a lot of teams last year, and I faced the Braves in Atlanta and they hit me well," Wainwright said, referring to a 4-1 loss on July 26 when he yielded seven hits and four runs in seven innings. "The right-handers knew I was going work them away. The left-handers knew I was going to work them in. So they all tried to hit the ball to rightfield and had great success."
In Game 1 of the World Series against Boston, Wainwright allowed five runs in the first two innings and went just five innings in an 8-1 loss. He pitched better but lost again in Game 5.
Wainwright said the Red Sox hitters "eliminated the third-base side of the plate against me, and it just put me at a disadvantage. This offseason, I decided that was not going to happen anymore."
So far, so good. Wainwright is 10-4 with a 2.01 ERA in 16 starts and has pitched at least eight innings in half of them. He's tied for the National League lead with three complete games, second in WHIP (0.90) and tied for second in wins, shutouts (two) and opponents' batting average (.199). In 116 1/3 innings, Wainwright has allowed just four home runs and has a nearly 5:1 ratio of strikeouts (105) to walks (22).
Wainwright missed one mid-June start with right elbow inflammation but has since returned to allow one run in eight innings in each of his past two starts. That's calming news for the Cardinals, who recently put starters Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia on the disabled list for what are expected to be lengthy stays with shoulder injuries.
Their spots in the rotation have been taken by Carlos Martinez, who was moved from the bullpen, and prize prospect Marco Gonzales, who was promoted from Double A. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are depending heavily on Wainwright, particularly with a sputtering offense that is 12th in the league in runs scored and next to last in home runs. He has been magnificent, pitching seven scoreless innings or more in seven of his 16 outings. And in four June starts, Wainwright went 2-1 with five walks, 24 strikeouts and a 1.16 ERA (four earned runs, 31 innings). The defeat was a complete-game 1-0 loss to the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
"He knows how to evaluate hitter tendencies," a longtime NL scout said. "What Wainwright does is he pitches to weakness better than most every pitcher in the big leagues."
With a lifetime record of 109-61, two second and one third in the Cy Young Award voting and a career WAR of 30, Wainwright is no stranger to robust seasons. He went 19-8 with a 2.63 ERA in 2009, 20-11, 2.42 the following year and 19-9, 2.94 in 2013. But what he began doing well last year -- and has done with more confidence and success this season -- can't be gleaned from statistics.
"He's taking the game plan of pitching, and he's taking it to a different level," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "He's expanding it by using his stuff differently to every hitter. I haven't seen many guys that are able to do that."
Wainwright, who will turn 33 on Aug. 30, underwent Tommy John surgery in February 2011 and missed that entire season. He logged 198 2/3 innings in 2012, but went 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA and "figured out real quick" that in order to get outs, some adjustments were necessary.
So if he was giving up hits, Wainwright started to do different things. He began to change where he stood on the pitching rubber, change the speed of his delivery, change the position of his hands, change whatever he deemed necessary on a certain pitch to keep the hitters from getting too comfortable.
"He's kind of like that hitter that never stops learning and never is satisfied," said Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who is 3-for-15 with two RBIs and three strikeouts against Wainwright. "[He] makes pitch-to-pitch adjustments. He's kind of like the Miguel Cabrera of pitching, really."
Wainwright throws a fastball, one of the better curveballs in the game and a cutter. When his stuff returned in 2013, Wainwright had his full arsenal and enhanced it with the ability to create when necessary. This season, Wainwright has further honed that intuitive sense of when to mix things up. He is like a jazz musician, laying down a melody and then taking flight and improvising during a solo.
"That's the way I feel when I'm on the mound," Wainwright said. "I feel there's an overall kind of an orchestra going on in my head. I can hear the individual instruments as far as I know exactly the approach that I have against each and every hitter. When I'm on and I'm locked in and I'm mentally thinking the way I should and physically repeating my delivery like I should, there's a flow to the game that is almost musical."
A lesser starter could make these free-form adjustments and pay dearly, not just with bad results but, perhaps, bad mechanics. But Wainwright has "checkpoints in my delivery that I always get to" that involve his hands, his arm angle and his landing spot on the mound.
Wainwright's hands break in the same spot during his delivery, regardless of whether he takes them over his head or keeps them down. No matter where he stands on the rubber, Wainwright's arm angle is always exactly the same, something he said can be confirmed by viewing his game tapes in slow motion.
Wainwright began his career in the Atlanta organization where he learned from Greg Maddux that there should be one set of cleat marks and, hence, one landing point on the mound, regardless of any delivery variations.
"I can do all the other stuff a little bit differently. As long as I keep my main checkpoints exactly the same, the ball will come out exactly the same," Wainwright said. "What I want to do is to be able to throw the ball to the different quadrants [of the strike zone,] so the hitter doesn't know what speed or what location it's going to be and whether it's curving or sinking or cutting.
"No doubt there's hundreds in the big leagues with better stuff than me as far as throwing harder and moving it more. I might not be as good as I think I am. But I have complete belief that all my stuff is going to do exactly what I think it should do. And when you have that mindset, it usually happens the way you want it to."
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Jack Etkin has covered professional baseball since 1981 for such outlets as the Kansas City Star, Rocky Mountain News, Baseball America, The Sports Xchange and MLB.com.