Adam Wainwright is a very, very good pitcher. In a world without Clayton Kershaw, he would be a perennial Cy Young candidate. This year, he’ll likely finish third behind Kershaw and Johnny Cueto, behind the strength of a 2.38 ERA (66 ERA-) and a 2.88 FIP (79 FIP-). Combined with his 227 innings, those numbers resulted in 4.5 fWAR and 6.9 RA9 WAR this season. His peripherals have declined a bit and his HR/FB shows some signs of fortunate luck, but he has the track record from before this season, too. He’s easily a top 10 pitcher in baseball. The Cardinals have as close to a push in game odds as they possibly can on Friday, and anything can happen in a single game.
Wainwright’s signature pitch is his curveball. His twitter handle is “unclecharlie50,” so he knows it. Fans of curveballs will be in for a treat on Friday. We all know about Kershaw’s curve, but here’s Wainwright’s at its best:
In 2014 Wainwright used his curveball 27% of the time, its frequency more or less tied with his cutter as the pitch he throws the most. He’ll turn to it frequently when ahead in the count (45% to LHH, 40% to RHH), and especially with two strikes (49% to LHH, 40% to RHH). It’s his out pitch, and though Wainwright’s strikeouts are down, his curve was still the second most valuable in baseball this season, less than a run behind Corey Kluber who is a Cy Young candidate himself.
So, the Dodgers’ success on Friday will partially depend on their ability to hit Wainwright’s curve, which is his primary strength. Luckily, this strength also belongs to the Dodgers’ offense. Per Fangraphs’ Pitch FX Pitch Values, the Dodgers’ non-pitchers produced 1.52 runs above average per 100 curveballs in 2014, the second highest rate in baseball. They’re only slightly behind the Tigers, and are one spot in front of the Rockies who play half of their games in a park where curveballs don’t work. Part of this value is because the Dodgers have a really good offense in general, but the curve value is still higher than any other pitch on a rate basis. The Dodgers, as a whole, have killed the slow breaking balls.
When looking league-wide, non-pitchers are hitting .219/.255/.329 in plate appearances which end with a curveball. The Dodgers’ probable starting eight on Friday (Gordon, Puig, Gonzalez, Kemp, Ramirez, Crawford, Uribe, Ellis) are hitting a combined .313/.355/.502 against the pitch, significantly better than the league average.
A lot of the success comes from Hanley Ramirez, who is hitting an incredible .471/.500/.853 when the last pitch he sees is a curve. Much of that is BABIP (.565), but he also has seven extra base hits against the pitch including three home runs. Here’s one of them:
Yasiel Puig has also done extremely well against the curve. In 2014, he hit .320/.424/.480 in plate appearances ending with curveballs. That’s not quite Hanley territory, but still way above the league average. He had eight extra base hits against the pitch. He only managed one home run, but he definitely made it count:
The best performance against curveballs on a rate basis on the Dodgers belongs to Carl Crawford, who is hitting .476/.522/.810 against the pitch. Unlike Ramirez and Puig, Crawford has not done much of his damage on extra base hits (only three, but two of his eight home runs), the line primarily inflated by singles and a .615 BABIP. Weird things happen in small samples, and obviously that one won’t continue to that degree. Still, at least Wainwright pitches from Crawford’s correct platoon side.
The Dodgers’ success against curves isn’t going to guarantee them a victory on Friday. Both of the Dodger GIFs above are on mistake pitches, and Adam Wainwright doesn’t make many of those. He’s not perfect, though; Brooks Baseball says that he grooves about five percent of his curveballs, so one or two per game. Still, the Dodgers have been good against the average of all curveballs they’ve seen, so they should get credit for more than taking advantage of their mistakes. Some of it just small sample size, too. There’s still something there though, even if the expected future pitch value should be regressed closer to the team’s offensive mean overall.
As Vin Scully would say, Wainwright’s curve against the Dodgers’ curve hitting abilities is “the classic case of push against shove.” At best, the Dodgers’ success against the curve might tip the game odds towards them by a percentage point or two, but those percentage points can mean everything in a series which promises to be as hotly contested at this one. Even if the Cardinals catch on to the Dodgers’ affinity for the breaking ball, it could cause Wainwright to go to his other (worse) pitches, which is not a bad outcome either.
This series is going to be fun.