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Against the Curve: Adam Wainwright Is Having a Late-Career Resurgence

The longtime Cardinal and his team return to the postseason after a brief drought ready to recapture the magic that made them special a decade ago

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s no pitch in baseball quite like a curveball called for strike three. In a relatively nonconfrontational sport, it’s deeply satisfying to watch one player so plainly fool another. Unlike a nasty slider or pinpoint heater, these curveballs aren’t hard to hit so much as hard to swing at; that they are often obvious strikes only makes them more rewarding for us and embarrassing for the hitter. If he flinches or his knees buckle, even better. In October 2006, Adam Wainwright authored one of the most iconic such called strikes of all time.

Earlier that season, a rookie Wainwright had been thrust into the closer role for the Cardinals after an injury to Jason Isringhausen. With just five total saves to his name, he quickly found himself on the mound in the most pressure-packed situation imaginable: Game 7 of the NLCS, bottom of the ninth, a two-run lead, two outs, the bases loaded, and the most dangerous Mets hitter at the plate in Carlos Beltrán. Wainwright would later describe the moment as the “most nervous I’ve ever been in my life.” The setup sounds like something scripted in a movie, and Wainwright’s ensuing pitch featured all the requisite special effects.

Out of his hand, the pitch seemed headed at the right-handed batter’s box. By the time it broke—somehow both sharply and gently—over the plate, Beltrán was completely frozen.

The pitch sent the Cardinals to the World Series (they would win) and cemented Uncle Charlie (the pitch and the player) as a Cardinals playoff legend. It also announced the arrival of Wainwright’s curveball, which would prove to be the foundation and instantly recognizable signature of a long and successful career, and fuel a quiet resurgence in 2019 for the longtime Cardinals ace.

Since Wainwright’s rookie season, no pitcher has gotten more value from their curveball, according to FanGraphs. And if it’s any solace to Beltrán, since the advent of pitch-tracking technology in 2008, Wainwright has struck out more batters looking with his curve than all but three pitchers. Not that he’s limited to freezing hitters: Over the same time frame, he is second in swinging strikeouts with the pitch. That’s a testament to his longevity, sure, but in contrast to a looping or hard curveball, Wainwright’s curve flutters and then dives, which allows him to both fool hitters over the plate and bury hitters with curves at the bottom of or below the zone.

Wainwright has a slew of tricks that enable him to generate such great spin and movement and vary the pitch’s trajectory. Before this season, Wainwright divulged to MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds some of the secrets behind his prolific pitch. “No one ever thinks about their thumb when they’re throwing a curveball.” Where many pitchers just hold the ball with their thumb and other fingers, Wainwright actually positions the ball on the outside of his thumb, and literally rolls it out of his hand. His middle finger goes on the seam, as is traditional, but Wainwright applies the pressure from his pointer finger to his other finger rather than the ball. This results in one of the true small joys of the pitch: He often releases his pointer finger from the ball as he lets go of the pitch. Pointing skyward during his delivery seems like it could put Wainwright at risk of tipping the pitch to hitters, but if they can see it, it doesn’t seem to have helped them much.

The year after his playoff heroics, Wainwright returned to starting and immediately established himself as an invaluable part of the Cardinals rotation and a force to be reckoned with around the league. In over 2,000 innings since 2007, Wainwright has won 160 games, posted a 3.39 ERA, and accrued 39.1 fWAR. He finished second in Cy Young voting twice (2010 and 2013), third two other times (2009 and 2014), and was named to the All-Star team three times (2010, 2013, and 2014). He’s also won two Gold Gloves and one Silver Slugger award.

But since his last All-Star campaign, the Cardinals ace has fallen on hard times marked by injury and ineffectiveness. His 2015 season ended prematurely due to an Achilles injury, and his 4.6 fWAR from 2016 to 2018 is less than what he had in his four best seasons alone. Many wondered whether the franchise icon would ever again contribute more than clubhouse leadership to the Cardinals. Even Wainwright himself was skeptical, admitting that he thought the 2018 season would be his last and that he discussed retirement with Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak.

Wainwright would ultimately sign an incentive-laden contract with just $2 million guaranteed for 2019, marking his 15th season with the Cardinals and making him the third-longest-tenured pitcher in franchise history. That he has maxed out his contract incentives as a starter has surely thrilled both him and the Cardinals, not to mention fans. Overshadowed around the league by other veteran reinventions like Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw and on his own team by Jack Flaherty’s second half for the ages, Wainwright is once again keeping hitters off balance with his signature curveball. He may not be his old self, but he has treated Cardinals fans to some vintage Uncle Charlie.

The St. Louis Cardinals’ fortune has mirrored Wainwright’s in many ways. During Wainwright’s acedom from 2009 to 2014, the Cardinals won the NL Central three times, made two World Series (winning one), and made the LCS two other times. Also like Wainwright, the Birds on the Bat have struggled since 2015 to recapture the success that characterized their first half of the decade.

That the Cardinals’ three-year playoff drought, which they snapped this year, basically amounted to a minicrisis to St. Louis and its fans may be the envy of many teams, but that represents the longest such stretch in St. Louis since 1997 to 1999. Fans in St. Louis have grown increasingly frustrated by this string of playoff misses and are itching for the team to rediscover its winning ways. Wainwright, along with battery-mate Yadier Molina, is one of the few holdovers from that last stretch of Cardinals greatness. The team has a new manager in Mike Shildt, a new crop of homegrown talent in Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Paul Dejong, Harrison Bader, and Tommy Edman, and a new batch of imported star power in Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew Miller, and Marcell Ozuna. In an interview prior to this season, Wainwright expressed his particular excitement about the influx of young pitching talent: “One of the main reasons I came back was to be a part of that.” It’s easy to see Wainwright as a steward seeking to lead this current squad to heights the Cardinals used to reach routinely.

This remade roster was expected to contend in an ultracompetitive NL Central, but the fight for the division crown, which they clinched on Sunday, was an uphill battle for much of the season, with the Cardinals in first place for just 62 days and in third as recently as August 10. The starting pitching depth that threatened to relegate Wainwright to a bullpen role failed to materialize: Jack Flaherty floundered out of the gate, Miles Mikolas failed to match his excellent 2018 campaign, Carlos Martínez is pitching in the bullpen, Michael Wacha has struggled mightily, and top prospect Alex Reyes threw just three innings due to injury. At the July 31 trade deadline, the Cardinals’ starters ranked 23rd in the majors in fWAR, and Cardinals fans were clamoring for the team to upgrade the unit via trade. But since that date, the Redbirds’ rotation has the fourth-highest fWAR in baseball. The biggest reason for that is Jack Flaherty, whose historic second half propelled the Cardinals to the division crown, but Wainwright’s contributions should not be overlooked.

At 38, Waino has lost several ticks off his fastball but has compensated by increasing the usage of his curveball, which continues to be one of the most effective in the league. Per FanGraphs, his has been the ninth-most-valuable curve in baseball this season, and is actually the only one of his pitches with positive run value on the year. Prime Wainwright was more all-around workhorse than one-trick pony, but in 2019 that signature pitch has prolonged Wainwright’s career and the Cardinals’ season.

It’s not the exact same pitch that Wainwright used to send Beltrán packing in 2006, though. As detailed by Joe Schwarz of The Athletic, Wainwright has reinvented his curve to feature more horizontal movement than before, and it is inducing more weak contact and tunneling more effectively with his fastball and cutter. The graph below from Brooks Baseball shows the pitch’s increasing horizontal movement since 2007, and his current level of horizontal movement is second only to Charlie Morton of the Rays among pitchers who have thrown 500 curves.

Where Wainwright’s legendary curve to Beltrán broke tightly and almost straight down—a near-literal representation of the 12-6 maxim—his current breaking ball is sweeping and expansive. Given Wainwright’s appreciation for the subtleties of thumb placement and seam pressure, it’s not surprising that he has managed to reconfigure his bread-and-butter pitch this deep into his career. But it’s fair to say few anticipated the extent to which he would find success as an older statesman in what has increasingly become a young man’s game.

Still, Wainwright is a ways off from his early-decade dominance, particularly when it comes to consistency. Within the friendly confines of Busch Stadium, Wainwright has posted a 2.56 ERA over 95 innings, which seems almost unbelievable compared to his 6.22 ERA on the road. The underlying metrics suggest that he isn’t such a wildly different pitcher at home and on the road, but they do point to a discrepancy. Similarly, Wainwright is significantly more effective against righties (.699 OPS) than against lefties (.884 OPS). And after allowing one earned run over his first four September starts, he has allowed 11 in his last two.

Wainwright’s presence on the mound and in the clubhouse imbues this season’s run with a sense of continuity and connects this team to the Cardinals’ historic legacy. St. Louis will face the Braves in the NLDS starting Thursday, and Wainwright is slated to pitch Game 3. The first arching curve he throws to Molina these playoffs will harken back to the Cardinals’ halcyon days and Wainwright’s 2006 run, but he won’t be thinking about that. Before that bookend battery cedes way to the new generation, Wainwright will have one more shot to add to his postseason legacy, and help the Cardinals franchise add to theirs.

This piece was updated with new information on October 3.