The secret to St. Louis Cardinals righty Adam Wainwright’s success

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FASTBALLS JET ACROSS the baseball atmosphere in this era, booming into catchers’ mitts at 100 mph or faster, and amid that sound of speed, there is Adam Wainwright‘s curveball.

The hot air balloon of pitches. Spinning peacefully in descent, moving more slowly than an I-70 commuter, yet still magnificent in its distinction.

“It feels like someone is standing on a ladder and dropping it over the plate,” said Joey Votto, the Reds’ first baseman who has 73 plate appearances against Wainwright, his most against any pitcher. “It’s really difficult to discern where it’s going to land, ball or strike.”

Wainwright’s career spans 18 major league seasons so far, an impressive accumulation of innings, strikeouts, wins and Cy Young votes. But when he returns to throw ceremonial first pitches in St. Louis, or maybe enters Cooperstown, his time and effort will be encapsulated with video of a single pitch, thrown the way his older brother taught him at age 12: that curveball that he dropped into the strike zone against the Mets’ Carlos Beltran to end the National League Championship Series in 2006.

“Over the years, my arm angle has changed a little bit,” Wainwright said. “The way I take my arm back has changed a little bit. It’s shaped a little different. But it’s been the one pitch that I could always rely on, and I could know how it’s going to come out. I could throw it as hard as I could possibly throw it, and it’s going to come out 75 mph.”

The pitch has been a constant in his baseball life, distinguishing him from other draft-eligible players when the Braves picked him in the first round in the 2000 draft, fueling the interest of the Cardinals before they asked for him in a J.D. Drew trade in 2003, carrying him still as he closes in on his 41st birthday next month.

His average fastball has dipped from 91.1 mph in 2010, the season before he had Tommy John surgery, to his current 88.6 mph. But for Wainwright, there is always the curveball. “If I didn’t have my curveball,” he said, “I don’t get out of A-ball.”

A pitcher’s feel for a particular grip on the baseball can come and go, sometimes disappearing forever. In his first starts of this season, Wainwright’s curveball just felt a little off to him, the ball drifting in benignly as it neared home plate rather than arriving with its typical sharp downward tilt. It wasn’t until fellow Cardinals pitcher Matthew Liberatore asked him about his curveball grip, and he held a baseball to demonstrate, that Wainwright realized he had been gripping the ball with the inside padding of his thumb rather than the side of the thumb. This had diminished the torque with which he had spun his curveball.

Wainwright didn’t need to go out and play catch to affirm his realization. “I knew it right away,” he said.

His longstanding connection to the pitch reestablished, Wainwright threw seven scoreless innings in his next start, May 31 against San Diego, allowing just two singles, striking out 10 and walking one. Wainwright has thrown 91 innings in 15 starts this season, with a 3.07 ERA, allowing only seven homers. Opponents have a slugging percentage of just .336 against his curveball.

Other players ask him how he can consistently throw his curveball for a strike, but the pitch is so instinctive for him that it’s difficult to describe the hows and whys. “It’s not something that I think about,” he said. “It’s a natural thing for me to be able to reach back and throw that pitch where I want to, most of the time.”

For a long, long time.

IN THE SUMMER leading up to Adam’s 13th birthday, Trey Wainwright worked an internship for Delta Airlines, and whenever possible, he’d make the five-hour drive from Atlanta to St. Simon’s Island to watch his little brother pitch.

Trey played enough baseball to try to walk on to the team at Georgia Tech and, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, he decided he might’ve profited from less trial and error and more specific instruction. So he was intent on offering his little brother whatever knowledge he could to augment the absurd natural ability that was already apparent.

According to the youth-league rules that Adam had played under, pitchers were not allowed to throw curveballs. But that restriction would not be in place for the All-Star tournaments that summer, and Trey showed Adam what he knew about the pitch: the grip, the best possible use of the seams, the turn of the wrist, the release.

There was an unintended twist in the instruction that Adam believes, to this day, was difference-making. Adam is right-handed, Trey is left-handed — but because Trey was the big brother and Adam fully absorbed what he said, he gripped the ball in the same way that Trey did. A right-handed thrower gripping the ball at the point where a left-handed thrower demonstrated. “Some of my grips are backwards from the way most people throw theirs,” Adam said. “The four-seam [fastball grip] is backwards also.”

The brothers lived in Braves country, turned on TBS nightly at 7:35 to watch the team’s games and followed the Atlanta rotation of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. In the years that followed, their conversations about pitching evolved from how to throw the curveball to when Adam should throw it. When Trey watched his little brother pitch in person, from next to the dugout, Adam would glance toward his brother to ask with his body language: Throw the curve now? Trey sometimes would shake him off, or give him a thumbs-up, honest feedback.

Adam was hurt during the summer before his senior year in high school, leaving a diminished window for a lot of teams to scout him before the 2000 draft. But the Braves had started tracking him long before then. Trey even recalls them showing up for one of Adam’s football games. Dayton Moore was the assistant director of scouting for the Braves at the time, working with scouting director Roy Clark and area scout Rob English, and Wainwright’s curveball caught their attention. Moore, now head of baseball operations for the Royals, wrote via text recently what he remembers about the high schooler’s curveball: “A true 12-6 rotation with depth. The ability to throw it for a strike. A definite swing-and-miss pitch.”

As Wainwright’s last high school season progressed, he began to mix in a slider — and there was some tension between the brothers about that. Trey told Adam that given the quality of his curveball, there was no need to throw a slider. “Now’s not the time,” Trey said, but Adam continued tinkering with the slider.

The Braves drafted Wainwright with the 29th pick of the first round, and during the negotiations, Moore could see how close the brothers were. “On the same page, no negative emotion,” Moore wrote in a text. “Expressed themselves one at a time. Trey acted strongly on Adam’s behalf.”

The process to complete the deal took a while, with the Braves initially offering $1.2 million and Trey pushing for more, based on draft precedent. “We ended up giving him $50,000 more than I was authorized to give,” Moore recalled. “I did it because Rob and I were so impressed with Adam’s maturity. The negotiations gave us even more conviction in him.”

After they finished the deal, Moore turned to Adam and said, “You know that slider? Forget about it. You’re not throwing that pitch.”

More than 20 years after that conversation, Trey clearly remembers that validation of a big brother’s instinct.

THIS IS A yearlong farewell tour for the Cardinals, because longtime stars Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina have announced they are retiring after this season. Because of Wainwright’s shared history with Molina, and because he’s close in age to the other two, there has been a general assumption that Wainwright is also at the finish line.

Rival evaluators aren’t so sure. “He’s too good to walk away now,” said an NL front-office member. “He’s still one of the best pitchers in the league. I’m sure the Cardinals will give him a chance to come back.”

The executive paused.

“And if they don’t, we will.”

Wainwright does not entertain that topic. “I’m enjoying where I’m at,” he said, sitting in the visitors dugout at Wrigley Field during a recent Cardinals-Cubs series. “I’m enjoying where I’m at every day.”

To that end, he has made a point of doing what he refers to as “old man walks,” focusing on time and place, exploring, taking pictures. “There’s a lot of things on the horizon for me beyond that,” he said. “Maybe singing a little bit.”

He will work on a music album in the offseason.

Wainwright continued. “A little golf. Coaching my kids is going to be a big one. Right now, where I’m at is trying to help this team win a World Series.”

Pujols, a three-time MVP and one of the greatest hitters of his generation, deserves to be a unanimous selection when his name appears on a Hall of Fame ballot. Molina, generally regarded within the sport as a transcendent defensive player, should get in easily.

Wainwright’s future standing in the eyes of Hall voters seems more uncertain. When he takes the mound this weekend against the Phillies — his record-setting 17th start on Sunday Night Baseball — he’ll be 10 victories shy of 200; his career pitching WAR, according to Baseball Reference, stands at 42.3, the same neighborhood as Lefty Gomez, Jack Morris and Dizzy Dean, who are Hall of Famers, and Bob Welch, Al Leiter and Cliff Lee, who are not. His Hall of Fame candidacy could use some more statistical bricks and mortar.

Within the context of Wainwright’s comeback, he’s happy to even be part of a Hall conversation. There were days during the 2018 season when he thought his career might be over, before he adjusted his diet, lost a lot of weight and found other ways to use his fastball, and his cut fastball, which veers away from right-handed hitters and into the hands of lefties.

“How cool is it,” Wainwright asked rhetorically of the Hall of Fame discussion, “that I’m even considered within the realm of possibilities. That’s a special thing. I don’t know what I have to do other than what I’m doing. I can’t affect or change the way people are thinking about it, change anything that happened in the past. I missed three seasons with injuries. It sucks, but what am I going to do about it.”

“Maybe that’s why I’m getting the extra three or four [seasons] at the end, because I missed those years.”

If he chooses to keep pitching beyond the 2022 season, he’ll continue to exploit the subtle power of his curveball, a slow-moving outlier that wrecks the timing of a generation of hitters that seemingly trains year-round to combat extreme velocity. Their uncertainty about how to hit against him is rooted in this number: No pitcher throws a higher percentage of called strikes (21.2%) than Wainwright. In fact, few pitchers are even close to that level. The Padres’ Joe Musgrove is second, at 20.5%, and Aaron Nola is third, at 19.8%. Wainwright recalled something Maddux said about pitching: That the craft is about making balls out of the zone look like strikes, and making strikes look like pitches out of the zone.

Wainwright’s curveball, a pitch that he typically releases about 6 feet, 5 inches above the ground — 10th highest among all pitchers — and arcs sharply downward, helps him to do this. “The height of the pitch separates it,” said Votto, one of many hitters, from the majors to high school, impressed by it.

As Wainwright waited out the baseball’s winter work stoppage, he threw batting practice to some teenagers at his alma mater, Glynn Academy High School, and along the way he mixed the curveball that has perplexed All-Stars from Beltran to Ronald Acuña Jr. The feedback was immediate, enthusiastic.

“Hey, you’re pretty good,” the teenage hitter said. “Your curveball is better than any curveball I’ve seen.”

Wainwright replied, “Buddy, I hope so. If it’s not, I don’t need to be playing in the big leagues.”

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