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Adam Wainwright out of sync, missing Yadier Molina's presence behind plate

Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright has not been his usual dominant self since the All-Star Game, and may be missing catcher Yadier Molina more than he realizes. Photo:

Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright has not been his usual dominant self since the All-Star Game, and may be missing catcher Yadier Molina more than he realizes.

Something is wrong with Adam Wainwright. On Wednesday, after he sustained his fifth loss in eight outings since he started the All-Star Game for the National League, he offered an explanation as to what it might be.

“I’ve been going through a dead arm phase,” Wainwright told Derrick Goold, the estimable beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Everybody does that. You have to find a way to get outs. Most of the time today I found ways to get outs. It’s not pretty. But I found ways to get outs. One of these days it’s going to click in and it’s going to be real nice.”

Before the All-Star break, through July 12, everything was certainly clicking for the Cardinals’ ace. In 19 starts, he was 12-4 with an ERA of 1.83, a WHIP of 0.91 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.1:1. His post-break numbers, which he began accumulating on July 22, look very different. After Wednesday’s 3-1 loss to the Pirates, in which he allowed three runs on eight hits over six innings, he now has not only a second-half record of 3-5, but a 4.68 ERA, a 1.46 WHIP and a 1.9:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Curiously, for a pitcher who has admitted to arm trouble, some of Wainwright’s numbers remain unchanged: those that relate to the velocity of his pitches. According to Brooks Baseball, on Wednesday Wainwright threw his four-seam fastball at an average of 91.2 MPH, his sinker at 91.4, his cutter at 87.5, his changeup at 84.9 and his curveball at 75.9. Those velocities are really no different from those he’s been reaching all season long, before and after the All-Star break.

Pitching at an elite level involves factors far more nuanced than the ability to throw hard — feel and command are two — but when a Cy Young contender pins a sudden streak of uncharacteristic performances on a dead arm, and yet his velocity numbers are the same as they were all year long, it is only natural to wonder if there might be other elements at play. What else has changed for Wainwright between the season’s first half and the second half?

One thing is that before the All-Star break, Wainwright threw almost exclusively to Yadier Molina, and after it he hasn’t thrown him a single pitch. That is because the Cardinals’ catcher tore a ligament in his right thumb on July 9, and has not played since.

Almost every pitcher loves throwing to Molina, who is by virtually every conventional and advanced metric the game’s most skilled backstop, but Wainwright really, really loves it. Over the course of his nine-year career, the 32-year-old righty has a 2.83 ERA in the 1241.2 innings he has pitched with Molina behind the plate, and a 4.03 ERA in the 261 innings he has thrown to anyone else.

MORE: Despite August troubles, Adam Wainwright keeps grinding​

During this past spring training, while I was reporting a profile of Molina and his brothers that appeared in Sports Illustrated’s Baseball Preview issue, I spoke to Wainwright about the experience of pitching to him.

“We know that [Molina's] special,” Wainwright said. “We know he’s great. We are incredibly blessed to have him as our catcher every day.

“If I had to tell you a story about Yadi,” Wainwright continued, “there was a time in 2012 where I was really struggling. I was coming back from Tommy John and I had no feel for anything. My stuff sucked, my sinker sucked, my changeup, slider. Curveball was the only thing that was decent. I was trying to call pitches and figure out what I wanted. He said, ‘Hey, just go out and pitch, let me call the game. Just try to execute.’ He got me through those rough starts, because I knew I could trust him. There’s times out there where pitchers are in need of a guy who is taking control, calming you down, and that’s what he was able to do for me.”

The debate rages on within the statistical community about the true impact any catcher can have on a pitcher, but a few things are clear. Wainwright is fully confident in Molina and feels most comfortable when throwing to him, in part, perhaps, because it is he with whom he has worked for nearly 83 percent of his big league innings.

This is not to suggest that the Wainwright we have come to know is a Molina creation, nor to discredit the players who have replaced him since he tore up his thumb, Tony Cruz and A.J. Pierzynski. And it is not to imply that Wainwright is not truthfully experiencing a physical issue with his right arm that has significantly contributed to his second-half woes. However, it only makes sense for Wainwright to publicly place the blame entirely on himself, rather than putting any part of it on teammates who are doing all they can, but are simply not Molina.

Whatever the case, Wainwright expressed confidence on Wednesday that his troubles will soon be behind him.

“I’m ready for September,” he told Goold.

The Cardinals, coincidentally, had just released another bit of news. Molina is close to returning from the disabled list, perhaps as soon as Friday.

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