Welcome to the new series for pitching junkies, in which we anticipate one excellent matchup per week and diarize it to learn something about the practitioners of the Mound Arts. In the process, we also discover meaningful things about ourselves and our lives through the lens of baseball. There is always a lesson at the end. Each pitchers’ duel receives an official 1-10 rating on the Marichal-Spahn Scale, named after the greatest pitchers’ duel ever.
This Week’s Pitchers’ Duel
Adam “My Last Name Means Wagon Builder” Wainwright (STL) vs. Jeff “Mat” Locke (PIT)
Bio: Age 31, righty, 6-foot-7, 235 pounds, born in Brunswick, Georgia, no college
2013 Stats: 13-6, 2.51 ERA, 2.24 FIP, 8.07 K/9, 5.0 WAR
Pitches: The cut fastball is the most frequent pitch (30.53 percent usage), but Wainwright mixes up his five pitches so well that nothing is truly prominent. You could even argue that the cutter works to keep batters off-balance, though it certainly does its share of the work, producing the fourth-best ground ball rate of any cutter in the game, plus a top-10 lowest line drive rate. But what makes him really tough is the four-seam (straight) fastball and the sinker, each thrown about 19 percent of the time, and each traveling about 91 mph. Identical speed, but the results are wildly different — the sinker ends up five inches farther to the right, and three inches lower. That’s tricky business already, and very few pitchers take that combo and add a cutter — which moves in the opposite direction, just 3 mph slower — to the repertoire. The results are brilliant; as a batter, you’re essentially forced to guess between three very different pitches each time you see a fastball coming your way. He’ll throw an 84 mph change from time to time, but the real offspeed gem is the curve, which breaks down at the fourth-best rate in baseball, and left at the second-best rate. It might be the nastiest pitch in baseball, and FanGraphs rates it as the most valuable curve of 2013.
Fun Fact: While proposing to his future wife in 2003, he was interrupted by a phone call notifying him he’d been traded from the Braves to the Cardinals. That’s from Wikipedia, which doesn’t follow up and let us know WHY THE HELL HE ANSWERED THE PHONE WHEN HE WAS PROPOSING.
Bio: Age 25, lefty, 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, born in North Conway, New Hampshire, no college
2013 Stats: 9-3, 2.15 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 6.51 K/9, 1.1 WAR
Pitches: The four-seam fastball is his most prominent pitch (a remarkable 65 percent usage). That pitch and his sinking fastball hover around 91 mph, and his other two pitches — a curve and a change — average 80-82. (FanGraphs has him with the third-most-horizontal movement in on lefties.) The four pitches obey a similar trend — not special in velocity, whiff percentage, or anything, really, except a decent ground ball percentage and horizontal movement.
That last paragraph may look familiar, because this is the second time we’ve used Jeff Locke, and the numbers have remained staggeringly consistent. Which maintains the Locke mystery: The peripherals say he’s an average pitcher, and yet he owns the league’s fifth-best ERA — up from sixth last time we did this. He doesn’t strike out many batters, he gives up way too many walks (though he’s top 10 in avoiding home runs), and all he really does well is force ground balls. So we ask the same question: Is this guy super lucky, or is he the next Greg Maddux?
Fun Fact: Two-time New Hampshire high school player of the year!
First Inning: This is Game 4 of a five-game series, which is pretty insane and awesome. Also great is that the Pirates have taken the first three and pretty much proved that the annual second-half collapse will be taking a year off. As I said above, this is the second time I’ve used Locke for the diary, but the fact that the game is so meaningful — these are the two best teams in the National League — and Wainwright is the best pitcher in baseball (by Wins Above Replacement) gave me all the excuse I needed.
Locke takes the hill first, against former U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Jon Jay. He’s coming at him with fastballs — that will be the first of roughly 7,000 times I write that sentence — and the tailing action serves to help him back from a 3-0 hole and get a groundout. Carlos Beltran grounds a first-pitch changeup through for a single, ending the dream of a double perfect game. Locke is wild again to Allen Craig, and another single through the left side puts runners on first and second. Locke is a perfect 1-0 in pitchers’ duel diaries to date, but this isn’t a great start. However, you can already see the beautiful right-to-left movement of his fastball, which Baseball Prospectus puts as the seventh-best among lefties.
To all you kids reading at home, if there’s one thing I’ve discovered in this pitchers’ duel odyssey, it’s that lefties with lots of fastball movement do quite well. So learn to throw with your left hand, I guess, if you don’t already. But oh no! Matt Holliday lines another hit, and it’s 1-0 Cardinals. With two seeing-eye singles setting it up, it’s clear “Locke” and “lucky” are separated by more than just two letters. He gets his mojo back against David Freese, fooling him with that lovely 82 mph circle change for a strikeout. But Daniel Descalso takes a low and away pitch and grounds it up the middle for yet another ground ball hit, and now it’s 2-0. Tony Cruz, subbing for Yadier Molina, grounds out, and the nightmare is over at 30 pitches. It’s only the second time Locke has allowed four hits in an inning this year — is the pressure of the diary getting to him?
Here we go with Wainwright, the wagonmaker himself! Starling Marte whiffs on a deadly sinker, gets bailed out half-swinging on a sick curve, and works a very rare walk; Wainwright has the lowest walks/nine rate among all MLB starters. A four-seamer gets Neil Walker to ground out to second, and up comes the great Andrew McCutchen. Wainwright starts him off with a curve-like cutter for a strike, then throws a real curve for strike two — a clever mini-strategy. With two strikes on righties, he’s most likely to throw a curve or a cutter again, and he does indeed try a curve (foul) first. Then he gets funky — four-seamer (ball), sinking change (ball), cutter (ball), and low four-seamer (pop out to first). Strong at-bat by McCutchen, but it’s just so damn hard to beat this guy from down 0-2. Things don’t get easier against Pedro Alvarez, who stares at two high cutters before ripping a third into center. A run scores, and it’s 2-1. Next is Russell Martin, who owns Wainwright, sort of (8-16 lifetime). A cutter puts him down in a 0-2 hole, but Wainwright’s curve is breaking too far out of the zone, not tempting for anyone. Finally a straight fastball on the outside corner sends Martin down looking, and this horrid inning is finished.
Second Inning: Locke is himself again as he peppers Pete Kozma with low fastballs, finally getting the backward K on a low, inside number that paints the corner. Wainwright gets the low stuff, too; fastball, change, pinched on a sweeping curve, and then — GAH — an outside fastball gets poked into right for a single. That’s the first hit by a pitcher in Pitchers’ Duel Diary history, and I’m not happy about it. This is an embarrassment. Interesting Pirates stat from the Root Sports Pittsburgh crew — they are 14-22 against teams over .500. Locke is losing control, his curves diving out of the zone, his fastballs just missing, and Jay adds another annoyance to his unlucky day by bunting for a single. Beltran fouls off a low fastball and flails at that devastating circle change for the second out; the change doesn’t really sink, but it starts out so low that it’s practically in the dirt by the end. Craig flares out to right on a curve, and Locke’s out, but with nearly 50 pitches to his credit.
Wainwright needs to save this duel from itself. But Garrett Jones slices a curve into left for a single; And here we go again, I think to myself in despair. He’s unnaturally wild, too, going to 3-1 on Jones before catching the corner on a four-seamer, battling him with two more high fastballs, before getting really creative and throwing a cutter for a … DOUBLE-PLAY BALL! He loves throwing curves to lefties on two-strike counts, and does it 50 percent of the time, but there he wouldn’t give in. Right when things looked stable, though, Clint Barmes takes a fastball into center field for a single. Even against the opposing pitcher, Wainwright is high, high, high with fastballs, barely catching the zone on two of four before finally K’ing him with a curve.
Third Inning: Still anybody’s duel as Locke faces Holliday. On the third pitch of the inning, Holliday absolutely jacks a fastball to the top of the wall. It’s either a single or a home run, and Mike Matheny demands a replay. The verdict? Jusssst catches the top of the railing. Huge break for Locke, and he needs it. He overloads Freese with low, outside fastballs, keeping him off-balance, and then strikes him out with the changeup. That’s his third circle-change K of the night, and then, GOOD GOD. Descalso pops up between Locke and Russell Martin, and the ball lands and spins to the foul line. Martin dives to barehand it and can’t even make a throw. This luck is miserable, but then again we should keep in mind that Locke has the ninth-lowest BABIP on the season, and that stat is often considered an indication of luck. So this might be your classic regression. Still, the man is battling, going ahead 0-2 on Cruz with fastballs and getting him to ground out to short. Of course, it’s a slow grounder, meaning a run scores and Descalso reaches second. This just ain’t his night, y’all. No idea why I used a Southern accent there, but it happened. Kozma gets the intentional walk, Wainwright strikes out, inning over, 69 pitches for Locke.
Big W time. He’s tied for first in MLB with 7.3 innings pitched per start, but that stat’s in danger tonight with the rocky start. By the way, that stat is so impossibly hard to find, and it’s crazy. Isn’t how long a pitcher lasts super important? Another one you can only find at Baseball-Reference, buried under a million categories, is pitches per start. Against, doesn’t that tell us so much? Why don’t all mainstream sites have these? Off the soapbox: Marte chases a first-pitch cutter and grounds out to short, and finally we see a quick out. But then, oh my goodness, Walker just sits back on a curve and annihilates the mother. Home run, no doubter, 3-2 ballgame. Then McCutchen almost does the same on a 1-0 cutter, but Beltran catches it at the wall. Wainwright very much living on the edge here. He gets out of the inning rather quickly, though, when Alvarez lines out on a 1-0 cutter to right.
Fourth Inning: Locke locates the fastballs beautifully against Jay, keeping them strictly on the corners, for another strikeout. He’s kind of a boring pitcher by the number, with tons of fastballs and not much else, but when he’s locating, it’s really fun to watch. So of course, the moment I say that, Beltran lines a double to left. That’s nine hits conceded for Locke, the most he’s allowed all season. Choker. He gets all crafty on Craig, but still gives up a shot to center … caught, fortunately. Not so fortunate against Holliday, who collects his third hit of the night after ignoring the tantalizing curves and worm-burner fastballs and poking a changeup to right. Beltran scores, and it’s 4-2. Locke’s 10 hits are now a career high. Freese grounds out on a fading fastball, but it’s situation critical for Locke, who has now thrown 89 pitches and will be lucky to last another inning.
They just showed footage of Willie Stargell getting a phone call in 1988 confirming he’d made the Hall of Fame. Pretty friggin’ cool. Wainwright starts Martin with a cutter that is so slider-like, minus the elevated velocity, that it’s just not fair. He follows with a curve Martin can barely foul off, and then elicits a lazy fly to center on a four-seamer. It just occurred to me that we haven’t seen many sinkers from Wainwright tonight; it’s all four-seamers and cutters, including the first to Jones. He mostly uses it early in counts, but I can’t remember seeing many tonight. The lucky-hit parade continues as Jones pushes a crawler between first and second, but Wainwright gets Alex Presley to ground to second on a first-pitch curve for a near double play. It looked like an awfully close call that Root won’t replay, and it kills Wainwright when Barmes sticks his bat out and hits a line-clutching double to right to score Presley. 4-3. It also ends half of the diary, because Josh Harrison pinch-hits for Locke, ending his night. Wainwright deals him a scary inside curve, a darting cutter, a low fastball, a high outside fastball, a ledge-dropping curve, and an inside curve that finally produces a groundout to third.
Fifth Inning: Wainwright is all by his lonesome now, still holding that 4-3 lead in the bottom of the inning. Marte starts it off by bunting down the third-base line, getting thrown out, and getting a huge break from a mildly bad safe call by the first-base ump. If you look at the baseball zodiac calendars, I bet this is a dark night for pitchers. Or something mystical. Because the breaks have all been with the hitters on both sides. Marte steals, Walker nubs a grounder to get him to third, and McCutchen waits out some solid outside fastballs from Wainwright before getting a high fastball that’s not as high as Wainwright wanted it, and hits a sac fly to center. Tie ballgame, 4-4. Alvarez, up next, works a long at-bat, but Wainwright finally strikes him out with a 3-2 curve.
Sixth Inning: He’s back, and the game is still tied at 4-4. And I honestly can’t believe I’m typing this again, but Martin just reached on an infield single when Kozma half-booted his grounder. Generous hit, and more bad luck for Wainwright. Jones is ready for the 1-0 cutter, but lines it out to right, so count one tiny dollop of luck for the pitchers. Wainwright works Presley with fastballs to 0-2, wastes a few pitches that Presley won’t touch, and then treats him to a 3-2 curve resulting in a … STRIKE-‘EM-OUT-THROW-‘EM-OUT DOUBLE PLAY!
Seventh Inning: Here he is again! Still 4-4. Inspirational longevity for Wainwright, but again, this is nothing new. Only Clayton Kershaw lasts as long as he does in games. He’s throwing Barmes a lot of offspeed stuff now, slower cutters and curves, and flushes him on a rare changeup. He’s now over 100 pitches, meaning this will probably be it. It’s more of the same to Jose Tabata, who grounds a curve to short on the first pitch. Last is Marte, who gets a loopy curve that starts near his shoulders and cuts over the plate, a slow cutter he fouls off, a curve in the dirt, a slow fastball that may be the first of the inning, an inside change, and another slow curve that strikes him out swinging. Beautiful stuff, and it just shows that even on a bad/unlucky day, what makes Wainwright so great is that he gives his team a lot of innings on minimal pitches. It’s absolutely the best off night I’ve seen this year.
THUS ENDS THE DUEL! Wainwright wins. But Pittsburgh goes on to win the game, 5-4, and can pull off the rare five-game sweep tomorrow.
4.1. Not great. Poor pitching, lucky hitting, etc.
This Week’s Lesson
Pitchers’ duels would sometimes be better if played on paper.