Wainwright downright dominating while evolving
Cardinals right-hander reinventing himself with constant experimentation
ST. LOUIS -- It's not all that unusual for a veteran pitcher, one wanting to maintain his relevancy and ensure longevity, to recreate himself mid-career. In fact, longtime Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan became one of the best in the business in fostering such reclamation projects.
Duncan turned Jason Marquis into a sinkerballer and convinced Andy Benes to lean more heavily on his offspeed pitches when his velocity didn't return post-surgery. Jeff Weaver and Woody Williams were among those who transitioned away from power pitching under Duncan's watch.
These were pitchers who changed their styles to survive. Now the Cards are watching as Adam Wainwright, hardly in need of an overhaul, is reinventing himself in an effort to thrive.
"Very rare, very special," manager Mike Matheny said, unable to compare Wainwright's ever-evolving approach to anyone he caught or saw. "To be able to say, 'I think I can do a little bit more,' is very unique."
What Wainwright began to do with regularity last season and continued through the first month of this one is quite incredible. He has essentially erased the validity of scouting reports by making himself a different pitcher from one start to the next, or changing mechanics and sequencing mid-game, even pitch to pitch. Wainwright has made pitching an ongoing experiment, setting out to discover new ways to toy with hitters each time out.
It's a trial-and-error process with basically no error. Wainwright was the first Major League pitcher to five wins and boasts a 1.20 ERA heading into his seventh start Friday in Chicago. He'll take the mound with a scoreless-innings streak of 25.
"I'm just enjoying baseball in a different light," said Wainwright, one of only four pitchers in franchise history to win five games before May. "Finding new ways to do things while at the same time staying with my strengths -- it's a pretty cool place to be. I feel like I've got a master plan. I can almost hear the music of the game in my head. It's kind of like a symphony -- I can see it -- and I'm just going to try to keep playing the music."
Pity the hitters who have to listen.
Together, they have mustered 24 hits and six runs in Wainwright's 45 innings. He's shut out his opponent in four of six starts and has struck out at least seven in all but one. Wainwright's only start that ended in a St. Louis loss was one in which the offense scored just one run for him.
Wainwright has yet to leave a start until after the seventh inning and could conceivably have strung together three consecutive shutouts had it not been for Matheny's cautiousness after he hyperextended his right knee trying to make a defensive play against the Mets.
"It's been awesome to watch," Matt Adams said.
"It's pretty hard to top what he's been able to do just consistently making those good pitches, with all his pitches, too," Matheny added. "He's not afraid to figure out how he can get better. That's him in a nutshell."
The genesis of Wainwright's self-reinventing came two years ago as he trudged through a season without feeling completely in sync. It wasn't all that surprising given that he was coming off a year missed because of Tommy John surgery.
Wainwright's signature curveball came back relatively quickly, but little else was reliable. That left him thinking about how he could find other ways to get outs.
Wainwright started by moving around on the rubber and throwing his cutter harder, then began gauging the reaction to various delivery speeds. He did more in 2013, which ended with Wainwright finishing as the runner-up to Clayton Kershaw in the National League Cy Young Award voting. Wainwright won 19 games, led the league with 241 2/3 innings and set a career high with 219 strikeouts.
"Last year, I grew to love the idea of pitching all the time, not just throwing the pitch but changing my deliveries and changing my speeds, keeping the hitter off-balance every way I can," Wainwright said. "This year, I'm doing all that stuff as well as adding some different variety of pitches. I'm just kind of enjoying finding out all those odds and ends that work and which pitches work at different speeds."
Wainwright is pitching mostly with a repertoire of four -- his curve, four-seam fastball, cutter and sinker. He's hardly needed his changeup, though he garnered three outs off the pitch in his last start. Wainwright is not hesitant to throw any of those pitches to either side of the plate against right-handed or left-handed hitters. He is quick to change the speeds of a pitch, too, going with a harder curveball, for instance, when he wants the swing-and-miss and a slower one when eyeing a ground ball.
It's an overload of options for which hitters have to prepare. And it has left many wondering if one of the best pitchers in baseball is actually getting better.
"That's what makes Waino good, because he can do different things in different at-bats," said his longtime catcher Yadier Molina. "One at-bat he can get you out with a curveball. He has four pitches that we can throw any time in any count. It's so good that he can do that."
Wainwright can't point to a better month-long stretch in his career.
"I'm getting results, obviously, but I'm really having more fun pitching now than I ever had," Wainwright said. "It's just such a chess match right now with me. I feel like I'm right where I need to be, so I'm going to work extra hard to stay there and not get complacent about it."
Complacency is unlikely for a 32-year-old right-hander who is approaching each outing like a puppeteer. Wainwright is making himself better, too, in front of the watchful eyes of his younger rotation mates, proving that it's unnecessary to wait until a career crossroads to change how you pitch.
"I've said this many times now and I'll continue to say it -- what a great example for our guys in this clubhouse and in this organization," Matheny said. "To say, 'Hey, this is our leader and look at what he's doing. He's pushing the limits and then figuring out how to keep going.'"
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.