JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- After more than 1,700 major league innings, there’s very little Adam Wainwright can’t do on the mound. He’s made 254 starts, won 134 games and expanded and evolved his repertoire with each passing season.
Though he’s thrown more than 25,000 MLB pitches, one still eludes him. His changeup.
“It’s something I’ve always needed to do. I just never was able to take that step to throw it with conviction and believe it was going to get outs,” he said. “I used to use it quite a bit the first and second year in the league and then I got interested in developing more of a cutter. Then I got away from it and the cutter sort of took the place of it.”
PITCHf/x data dating back further than 2007 isn’t readily available, which would cover the two years Wainwright spoke about. But from 2007 on, there’s a clear story in the numbers.
In the four seasons from ‘07-’10, the Cardinal ace didn’t exactly pull the string regularly, but he leaned on the change with more frequency.
While his sinker, curve and cutter were still the stars of the show, he threw his change 7.4 percent of the time. Here are the totals from that run:
2007: 96 changeups (7.9%)
2008: 125 changeups (6.7%)
2009: 248 changeups (6.7%)
2010: 283 changeups (8.46%)
The percentages are based on total number of overall pitches, so even though the number of changeups increased markedly in 2009, they still made up less than seven percent of Wainwright’s total offerings.
2010, the highest usage rate for years where data is available, coincided with Wainwright learning a new grip from Tim Lincecum. Previously, the 6’7 righty threw what he calls a “Maddux change,” which uses a more traditional circle change grip. After an All Star Game summit with Lincecum, Wainwright debuted a split-finger change, which spreads the index and middle finger out on either side of the seams.
“The split change is actually really good. It’s a different looking pitch, a harder pitch. There’s some games where I use that exclusively and some games where I use the regular changeup. Traditionally I have not thrown many of either, but depending on the day you might need something like that,” Wainwright explained.
Despite having two changeup grips to choose from, Wainwright never got comfortable using it. After Tommy John surgery ate up all of the 2011 season, Uncle Charlie’s change saw a precipitous drop.
From 2012-2016 (excluding 2015’s injury-shortened campaign), the pitch showed up just 3.1 percent of the time, bottoming out in usage in 2014.
2012: 183 changeups (5.5%)
2013: 135 changeups (3.3%)
2014: 62 changeups (1.7%)
2016: 72 changeups (2.2%)
By comparison, Wainwright’s sinker, curve and cutter were all used more than 25 percent of the time.
There’s no denying the effectiveness of Wainwright’s cut fastball as a replacement change-of-pace pitch. In Wednesday’s live bullpen, he unleashed a picture-perfect cutter and tied one of the most disciplined hitters in baseball, Matt Carpenter, into knots.
He doesn’t necessarily need the changeup, but for a pitcher who prides himself on unpredictability born of versatility, an empty spot in the toolbox is nagging.
“I want hitters up there thinking, ‘changeup, changeup, changeup,’” he said. “Every spring I always say I am going to do it. I throw a couple of good ones in spring and I use it really routinely in my spring games, and then I get into the season and I just get back into old habits.”
But this season could be a chance to buck that trend. Last year Wainwright returned from his Achilles injury feeling strong, but his lower half was compromised. He’d land on his repaired leg as he delivered and his atrophied muscles couldn’t stabilize him as he finished his pitch. His fresh arm couldn’t compensate.
“I could feel it, but in the past when that would happen, I would say, ‘Hey. Throw through the target, don’t fall off so fast and just make sure you get through your delivery first.’ I always had a little fall off, but not like it was last year. It was one of those things where if I’m being honest, when I look back, deep down I may have known, but I didn’t want to admit it. Like, ‘No, no. It’s going to be fine, I just need to do this.’ But I never fixed it,” Wainwright said. “It sucks because I had to find different ways to do things. Just stuff wise, I didn’t have great stuff working. You don’t have anything if you don’t have your base.”
2017 finds his leg in much better shape. Wednesday’s session was a demonstration of control and confidence, with accompanying buckled knees and frustrated half-swings.
“Not even remotely the same. Night and day. Today even when I missed, I still followed through and I was sticking my land leg and I finished with my [back] leg up in the air. Then I put it back down as opposed to flying off because I couldn’t control it,” he said.
But the change was still in the garage, idle in the early days of spring. With fresh legs, the 35-year-old Wainwright could form new habits that incorporate the pitch. Ever the optimist, he believes this year is finally the year. Until it’s not.