NL Central: Cardinals arms rise with sinkers

JUPITER, Fla. – Following his seventh start last season, Adam Wainwright(notes) dragged himself to the video room. He was incensed, stumped and ready to lock the door and not open it until he figured out his problem.

“Something was wrong,” Wainwright said. “I wasn’t able to sink the ball.”

Adam Wainwright learned there’s the St. Louis Cardinals’ way in how to throw a fastball, and four-seamers aren’t part of that plan.
(AP/Photo)

For Wainwright – for any St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, really – this is a problem. Wainwright grew up throwing four-seam fastballs, the sort that run straight and fast, and came through the Atlanta Braves organization knowing no different. Only when St. Louis traded for him did Wainwright learn the gospel of its legendary pitching coach, Dave Duncan: Pitchers wearing Cardinals uniforms throw two-seam fastballs that sink, and those who don’t might as well go somewhere else.

“Four-seamers are from Satan,” Wainwright said.

And yet his two-seamer had abandoned him, and he was laboring through his starts, needing 119 pitches that night against Cincinnati to make it through six innings. So Wainwright took a seat alongside the Cardinals’ ace, Chris Carpenter(notes), and started comparing footage of his 2008 season with his 2009 starts.

“We’ve got a Cy Young winner and a Hall of Fame pitching coach who believe in film sessions,” Wainwright said. “Think about it: You’re able to watch hitters’ weaknesses, exploit them, use your strengths to get them out.”

Immediately they noticed the problem. Wainwright’s arm slot was too high. About five inches off, he estimates. Taller pitchers tend to struggle with consistent arm slots, and the 6-foot-7 Wainwright not only was losing the tail on his fastball, his slider lacked bite and his changeup missed its late fade. By lowering his arm slot to the high three-quarters, he hoped to jolt his stuff back to life.

His next start, Wainwright limited Milwaukee to two hits in eight innings. The game after that, he finished one out shy of a complete game. And for the rest of the season, Wainwright was perhaps the best pitcher in baseball. From May 16 on, no one threw more than his 191 2/3 innings, and only Clayton Kershaw(notes), Tim Lincecum(notes) and Felix Hernandez(notes) put up better earned-run averages than his 2.25.

Wainwright also heeded advice from Duncan following an April 16 start in which he loaded the bases in the sixth inning and threw a 3-2 pitch to catch Milton Bradley(notes) looking: Pitch like you do in jams all the time, and you’ll win the Cy Young.

“Think about it,” Wainwright said. “If you have to bear down when people are on base, that means you weren’t bearing down. If you do it from the beginning, it comes naturally.”

So while the mental drain on Wainwright was acute, it didn’t exhaust him nearly as much as getting out of jams. After the Cincinnati game, Wainwright never threw fewer than five innings and he went seven or more in 20 of 27 starts. Though his pitch counts occasionally leapt – he threw 130 on Sept. 26 against Colorado – Wainwright’s attitude adjustment worked.

And Duncan was almost right. The 28-year-old Wainwright finished third in the Cy Young voting, one spot behind Carpenter, who has played friend and mentor since Wainwright joined the Cardinals’ rotation in 2007.

“He’s definitely a guy after whom I pattern my game,” Wainwright said. “Only without the 96-mph sinker. And the devastating cutter. I’m a modified version of him. I’m fine with being the A-minus. He’s definitely like Yoda. All I can teach him about is golf, ‘American Idol’ and country music.”

Together they comprise perhaps the best pair of pitchers in the NL. Lincecum, the eventual winner, and Matt Cain(notes) of the Giants certainly have a good argument. They don’t have the sort of offense that backs Wainwright and Carpenter, with Albert Pujols(notes), Matt Holliday(notes), Colby Rasmus(notes) and Ryan Ludwick(notes) making the Cardinals the favorite to repeat as Central division champions ahead of a couple might-be teams, one not-yet group and a couple of oh-no squads.

The rest of the NL Central, alphabetically. …

Castro

Kansas City Chicago Cubs: Now that a little offseason chemotherapy took care of Milton Bradley, the Cubs are free to be the Cubs again. Which is to say unquestionably talented, a bit aged and in search of their first World Series victory in 102 years. Derrek Lee(notes), Alfonso Soriano(notes) and Ted Lilly(notes) are 34, Ryan Dempster(notes), Kosuke Fukudome(notes) and Marlon Byrd(notes) turn 33 during the season, and for a team haunted by injuries last season, those numbers are scary. And although the captain of the good ship, Lou Piniella, is leaving Arizona this week in good spirits – “I’m not really concerned about anything,” he said – the Cubs know different. This is a good team, not a pennant-winning one, and even if shortstop Starlin Castro(notes) arrives at midseason to become the first everyday star the farm system has produced since Mark Grace in 1988, it probably won’t be enough. Hey, there’s always 2011.

Kansas City Cincinnati Reds: Next year, impatient ones. Next year, when Joey Votto(notes) has blossomed into a superstar and Jay Bruce(notes) finally has played a full and effective season and the Reds can open with a rotation featuring Aroldis Chapman(notes), Johnny Cueto(notes), Edinson Volquez(notes), Homer Bailey(notes) and Mike Leake(notes) or Travis Wood(notes) – that’s when this team can embrace the whole darkhorse thing. Until then, pop a Xanax, please. There are things to like – Chapman’s fastball being Nos. 1, 2 and 3, worthy of multiple places – but holes, too. Dusty Baker is not the proper manager to nurture a stable of young arms. The Reds haven’t fielded a legitimate shortstop since Barry Larkin. Their bullpen runs thin. So, please, don’t crown them yet. These are not the 2008 Rays, not by a long shot.

Lindstrom

Kansas City Houston Astros: Years of skinflint draft-day bonuses – thanks, Drayton McLane, for being the only owner in all of baseball to adhere to Bud Selig’s non-mandated slotting rules – have led to this. It’s not a brutal team; just a bad one. And no matter what sort of attitude new manager Brad Mills(notes) brings from the Red Sox, he can’t make chicken salad here. The Astros come with no demonstrable strength and a bevy of weaknesses, chief among them a bullpen that brought in failed Florida closer Matt Lindstrom(notes) to upgrade the corps. Even if Roy Oswalt(notes) and Lance Berkman(notes) are healthy – and right now, neither is a lock for opening day – Houston is a leaning tower of bad contracts and grim prospects. And timber it shall go.

Kansas City Milwaukee Brewers: There is plenty to like here, and there will be as long as Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo(notes) and Prince Fielder(notes) are in Beeropolis. Braun is locked in until 2015, so checkmark there, and Gallardo isn’t arbitration eligible until next year. Fielder’s post-2011 free agency will linger over the Brewers all season and perhaps overshadow a nice bunch constructed by Doug Melvin. The lineup is potentially potent, particularly if rookie shortstop Alcides Escobar(notes) hits, and a Latroy Hawkins(notes)-Todd Coffey-Trevor Hoffman(notes) seventh-eighth-ninth, with Mitch Stetter(notes) providing lefty-specialist innings, is potent. Then there’s the rotation, the sticking-point yin to Fielder’s contract yang. Gallardo is great. Randy Wolf(notes) should be good. The Doug Davis(notes)-Dave Bush-Jeff Suppan(notes)-Manny Parra grab bag – well, there’s a reason they’re not picked to finish first.

Kansas City Pittsburgh Pirates: Two years into the Neal Huntington regime, the Pirates have indeed changed. They are a new variation on an old kind of suck, of course, but at least fans get a whole new set of players to boo. The Pirates will almost certainly spend their record 18th consecutive season under .500, as no long-term fix exists from within and no short-term fix is available for the dollars given to Huntington. So goes his handicap: general manager of a franchise whose greatest ally is hope. Sure, the Pirates could rock a particularly good draft – though going safe with catcher Tony Sanchez fourth overall last year is the sort of low-risk maneuver that doomed past Pittsburgh regimes – but come on. These are the Pirates, futile as ever, and down here is where they belong.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Mar 30, 2010