The quiet greatness of Adam Wainwright - NBC Sports

The quiet greatness of Adam Wainwright
Cardinals ace continues to improve his craft, even as he builds superstar's resume
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April 25, 2014, 4:00 pm

You are aware, perhaps, of the legend of Charlie Parker. Bird grew up in Kansas City. His father, Charles, drifted in and out of young Charlie’s life. Charles, the father, had different jobs and was chased by various demons but, at heart, he was a musician. He infused his son’s life with music. Charlie started to play the saxophone when he was 10 or 11. He showed some promise. The legend goes: Nobody saw greatness in him.

In 1937, when he was 16 years old, Charlie Parker took the stage at a place called the Reno Club -- one of the many, many jazz clubs that popped up in those wild days around 18th and Vine -- and he tried to jam with some of the musicians in a typical late night scene. Somewhere in the middle, Parker lost his place -– the one thing a jazz musician must never do. Jo Jones, a drummer for the Count Basie Orchestra, was so offended he picked up a cymbal and threw it at Parker. It was the musician’s insult.

“I’ll be back,” Parker allegedly said as he made his way out through the laughter.

That’s the legend anyway. And then Charlie Parker, to use the jazz expression, went woodshedding. That is, he went to some distant place (at least in his mind) and there he would blow his saxophone for 15 or 16 hours a day. He said he used to drive the neighbors crazy. He only took breaks for food and sleep, and sometimes he did not even stop for those. He did this, he said, for three or four years. And when he emerged, he was utterly unrecognizable. The unsure kid was gone; Charlie Parker was now Bird, a musician with a sound and power quite unlike anything anyone had ever heard. And he would reshape jazz.

It’s a cool story, even if exaggerated, and it seems to me that every now and then we see a Charlie Parker-like emergence in sports. Novak Djokovic, for instance was a terrific young tennis player -- he reached the final of the U.S. Open when he was only 20. Months later, he beat Roger Federer at the Australian Open and went on to become of the youngest ever Australian Open winners.

But he was mercurial, inconsistent, quirky -– very quirky. He would sometimes bounce the ball two dozen times before serving -- he seemed to have a weird phobia about the serve, not unlike the old Steve Sax problem throwing the ball from second to first. He did not seem to have the weapons necessary to beat Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer on a consistent basis. Nadal beat him 14 of the first 18 times they played; Federer, even with the Australian loss, won 13 of the first 19. Djokovic seemed a good player destined to always be a good player.

Then, in late 2010 and early 2011, Djokovic emerged as something unrecognizable. It wasn’t that his shots had more power on them; they generally didn’t. Instead, he just stopped missing. In tennis, the serve intimidates but a player who never misses intimidates even more. Playing this new Djokovic was something like playing your own subconscious. How many great shots could you hit if he kept getting them back? How long could you stay out there when he seemed willing to endure forever? Djokovic’s 2011 season is one of the best in the history of tennis -- three major championships a 41-match winning streak, a 70-6 record. And it looks like he’s just about ready to take No. 1 in the world back again.

Cliff Lee is another one I always thought had a Charlie Parker-like emergence. Lee was no great prospect. He was drafted three times, never higher than the fourth round. He flashed a live arm in the Montreal minors, but not much else. In 2002, the Expos threw him into a trade with Cleveland for Bartolo Colon. He made it to the big leagues and looked like the nondescript lefty pitching prospect –- good fastball, raw, couldn’t find the strike zone, gave up a lot of home runs. That’s how he pitched for three years.

And then he got hurt and, a bit later, got sent back to the minor leagues. The next year, there was a whole new Cliff Lee. Unrecognizable. He almost completely stopped walking people and stopped giving up home runs The fastball was not as hard as it had been, but he changed speeds and painted corners and won the Cy Young Award in 2008. And while some (ahem) thought it seemed kind of fluky, in truth he just became MORE of a genius as time went on. In 2010, as a 31-year-old, he struck out 185 and walked 18. That would be EIGHTEEN in more than 200 innings. From 2010 through the moment, Cliff Lee has a seven-to-one strikeout to walk ratio. Insane. This year he has struck out 38 and walked two. As in “two.”

How the heck does this Charlie Parker transformation happen?

I don’t know. But that brings us to the point of this: I think the transformation is happening to St. Louis' Adam Wainwright. I think he is emerging as a whole new kind of pitcher. And, as seems to be his fate, very few people seem to be noticing.

* * *

Wainwright is not like Parker or Djokovic or Lee; he never had anyone throw a cymbal at him. The guy was pegged as a star more or less from the start. He was the pride of St. Simons Island, Ga., a 6-foot-7 all-sports superstar who hit .500 as a hitter, threw 95 mph as a pitcher and cracked a 48-yard field goal for the football team. His favorite team, the Atlanta Braves, drafted him in the first round. A few months later, Baseball America placed him in the Top 100 prospects in baseball -– he would be a Top 100 prospect for four straight years. At a young age, he had learned to harness his 95-plus-mph fastball by throwing them into a net off a homemade mound built by his older brother Trey. Everyone called him “advanced.”

In December 2003, the Braves realized they were going to lose right fielder Gary Sheffield to the Yankees and they desperately wanted J.D. Drew to replace him. The Cardinals insisted on getting 22-year-old Adam Wainwright in return. Drew did have one superb season for Atlanta. But most Braves fans will still file that deal in the regret pile.

Wainwright was a World Series hero before he was even a big league starter. The 2006 Cardinals, you might recall, went into free fall shortly before the end of the season. They lost seven in a row after being up seven games, in large part because their bullpen tilted. They simply couldn’t get outs in the late innings. As sort of a desperation move, the Cardinals moved Wainwright into the closer’s role -- he had been pitching in middle relief to get some Major League experience. He saved two games that halted the Cardinals collapse.

And then, he was utterly dominant in the playoffs. He made nine appearances in the division series, championship series and World Series. He did not allow a single run in any of them. In all, he pitched 9 2/3 innings, struck out 15, walked two, and allowed batters to hit .194. This included the famous curveball that froze the Mets’ Carlos Beltran and left fans muttering, “Swing the bat, Carlos,” at him for the next few years. Wainwright was just about as dominant as a closer could be. And he had still not made a single major-league start.

The temptation, when a pitcher is THAT dominant as a closer, is to keep him as a closer. There is example after example of this. I have little doubt that the Kansas City Royals -- to choose an example I know the most about -- would have kept Wainwright as a closer. But the Cardinals are a smarter organization than most, and Adam Wainwright has not pitched one time out of the bullpen since the 2006 World Series. Not once. The Cardinals traded for him to be a starter, they saw him as a starter, they believed deeply that he’d be more valuable as a starter. They made him a starter.

And that’s good, because Wainwright wanted to be a starter. He wasn’t great in 2007 or '08, but he was certainly better than average. He was still developing the curveball that would become one of the great weapons in baseball, and he was still working on figuring out how to get out big league hitters consistently. The thing everyone said about Wainwright at the time -- and the thing you could not help but notice whenever you talked with him -- was how driven he was to get better. He latched on to Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, tried to learn everything he could.

“What you love as a coach,” Dave Duncan told me back in 2009, “is a player who wants to get better.” Duncan was the brilliant pitching coach of the Cardinals until 2011, and while those words sound pretty obvious -- what player does NOT want to get better? -- they were filled with meaning for Duncan. He had developed a reputation for resuscitating broken careers; he felt like those pitchers came to him willing to do anything to improve -- focus on a new pitch, change a longtime habit, concentrate on something new and uncomfortable.

Well, of course they did. They could see the end. Someone on the brink of failure is much more likely to be open to suggestions. As legendary batting coach Charlie Lau once said of his star pupil George Brett: “He was hitting .200 at the time so OF COURSE he listened to me.”

But Wainwright was not failing. He was pitching pretty well. And that’s what impressed Duncan: Even while he had success, he STILL listened carefully and STILL was willing to change everything. The difference between Adam Wainwright in 2008 and 2009 is illustrative. For the first time in his career, he started throwing the fastball less than half the time. He began really working his devastating curve. More than anything, though, he listened to Duncan and Carpenter about how to set up hitters, how to get out of at-bats using fewer pitches, how to make hitters go just slightly out of the strike zone with their swings.

In 2009, Wainwright became one of the best pitchers in baseball. Timing does matter. If Wainwright had come around twenty or 30 years ago, he would probably have two Cy Young Awards now, maybe three. In 2009, he led the league in victories (19) and innings (233), and that combination used to mean a near-automatic Cy Young victory. Between 1956 and 1972, 20 of the 23 Cy Young winners led their league in victories.

But the win has lost much of its hold over baseball analysts -- rightly, I think -- and the award went to 15-game winner Tim Lincecum. Wainwright was given the Gold Glove as a sort of consolation prize.

In 2010, he won 20 with a 2.42 ERA and 213 strikeouts and finished second to Roy Halladay in the Cy Young voting. By 2010, he had mastered this new way of power pitching -- his fastball velocity was up, he mixed a sinking fastball and a cutting fastball, his curveball was electric. His walks were down, his strikeouts up, he did not allow many home runs. He seemed to have found his place.

There were lessons everywhere. He told the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s Derrick Goold a great little story about the time hitting coach Hal McRae was walking past a group of Cardinals signing autographs. McRae looked over, winced and said, “Y’all’s signatures suck.”

Wainwright laughed and asked about his signature. McRae looked at it, kind of squinted and said the thing looked like “Al Wigamawhat.” Wainwright took this to heart but not the way you might expect. It’s not uncommon for a veteran like Hal McRae to pull over the young kids and tell them to put a little more effort into making their autographs legible. It’s about taking pride and showing respect. This will usually inspire young players to improve their autograph.

But what Wainwright took from the meeting was that great players have autographs that match their greatness. Bob Gibson’s autograph, for instance, is a little piece of art. “What I’ve taken out of that,” Wainwright told Goold, “was, well, that Hal didn’t think I was going to be good enough to have those type of (beautiful) signatures. I better change it up. He was right.”

Yes, Adam Wainwright very carefully made himself into a great pitcher. People might not have noticed much nationally, but in St. Louis, people did. And then, just as he got to spring training in 2011, he was taking batting practice and noticed that his elbow hurt. When the elbow hurts, it rarely leads to good news. He had blown out his ulnar collateral ligament. He needed Tommy John surgery. And he was out for all of 2011.

It was the first real bit of trauma in his career.

* * *

Comebacks from Tommy John surgery are so common now that we barely even think about them anymore. That’s a shame, because it’s a very difficult comeback. When Adam Wainwright started again in the big leagues, he barely even looked like himself. The first three months of his comeback, his ERA hovered around 5.00, his fastball velocity was down, he lost all feel of his cutter and change-up, even his great curveball seemed to have lost much of its bite.

Of course, people said he would never be the same because people say stuff like that. And this gets to the point -– the Charlie Parker transformation. They were right. Wainwright would never be the same. He would be better than he’d ever been.

It really began last year. The transformation was clear more or less from the beginning of the season –- he didn’t walk a single batter in his first four starts. He was the first pitcher in a decade, and only the second since the end of World War II, to start a season with four straight starts pitching at least six innings without a walk.

It was clear; Wainwright had figured out a way to blend his many pitches into this kind of wild art form. Of course, it began with his sudden refusal to walk almost anybody. Last year, he again led the league in wins and innings, shutouts, too, he probably would have won a Cy Young if it had been 1972 (Clayton Kershaw with 16 victories and a 1.83 ERA took the award).

But what was more telling was that Wainwright unintentionally walked 33 batters all year. The virtuosity required to walk so few people takes a combination of a dozen or more talents. It takes control of all pitches, obviously, and command of pitches, which is slightly different. A pitching coach once explained to me the difference between control and command this way: Control is the ability to throw strikes while command is the ability to throw strikes that hitters won’t hit onto Waveland Avenue.

Then, walking so few also takes the guts to throw strikes in hitters counts, the wizardry to throw balls that look like strikes, the ingenuity to throw curveballs when the batter looks fastball and fastballs when the batter expects curve and to threw the four or five change-ups Wainwright throws each game at exactly the right time. Wainwright quickly credits the ingenuity to catcher Yadier Molina -– “the most irreplaceable player in baseball,” Wainwright calls him –- but there’s also a certain sense of pitching that he has developed. He’s 32 now. He’s been through a lot. You can sense that experience every time he pitches now.

It’s funny, if this had been another time, Wainwright would be a huge national star. Take the 1970s. With his fun personality, his media-friendliness and the thoughtful way he looks at the game, he’d probably do numerous national television commercials and spend time talking with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. With his record, he’d probably be viewed as the best pitcher in the National League, and he might have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated a few more times than he has.

Adam Wainwright has never appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, if you are scoring at home.

I have a little “Fame Level” chart in my mind where I try to rank a player's stardom:

* Fame level 1: Only the most intense baseball fans know the player.

* Fame level 2: Known by moderate baseball fans and fantasy baseball owners.

* Fame level 3: Known by just about every baseball fan, and gets celebrated often on national television.

* Fame level 4: Known by many non-baseball fans.

* Fame level 5: Known by just about everybody –- Derek Jeter, for example.

* Fame level 6: So well known they are taught in schools (Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson)

Adam Wainwright should be at least at Fame Level 3, probably Fame Level 4. I mean: World Series hero, 20-game winner, twice a league-leader in wins, etc. But I suspect that, in reality, he’s only a Level 2 on the Fame scale. You just don’t hear much about him outside of St. Louis. Non-baseball fans seem entirely unaware.

That’s a shame because watching Wainwright pitch these days is one of my favorite parts of baseball. He’s now achieved some sort of higher level. So far this year, he’s 4-1 with a 1.46 ERA. He has already thrown a shutout -– a 110-pitch, two-hit beauty at Washington. He has a 17-inning scoreless streak going. He gets batters out with great stuff, and he gets batters out by relentlessly throwing the right pitch, and –- as Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver and other great ones did -– he gets batters out with his presence too. There are just some pitchers who make batters anxious before the game even begins. Wainwright has become one of those.

And, not to make this too grandiose, there seems something more, that thing the writer John McPhee -– referring to college basketball legend Bill Bradley –- called “a sense of who you are.” Wainwright just signed a five-year, $97.5 million deal that is unquestionably worth a lot less than he could have received on the open market. "This is where I want to be,” Wainwright said when asked if he regretted signing for less than he might have received. “You can’t buy happiness. I’m not going to be happier anywhere else.”

In addition to making Cardinals fans delirious with joy –- there are few things fans, especially Cardinals fans, love hearing more than that they are worth more than money -– it set up Wainwright to be the team leader, to keep pitching to Yadi Molina and to keep getting closer and closer to the mountain top. Wainwright just seems in control. But when you ask him how he got there, he sort of shrugs.

“Just make my pitches and keep improving,” he says. Cliché? Maybe. But doesn’t it all come down to that basic cliché, come down to doing your best and to never stop trying to figure things out? It reminds me of an interview done with Charlie Parker late in his life.

“I’d like to study more,” Bird said. “I’m not quite through yet. I don’t consider myself too old to learn.”

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski



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