Wainwright curve to provide test for Pirates hitters

Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright talks with young pitchers in the dugout during a game against the Pirates on Saturday, April 5, 2014, at PNC Park.
Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright talks with young pitchers in the dugout during a game against the Pirates on Saturday, April 5, 2014, at PNC Park.
Photo by Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Travis Sawchik
| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 10:34 p.m.

Early one March morning in Bradenton, Fla., a visiting front office official from another club was surprised by how early thwacks were emanating from the McKechnie Field batting cages. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was asked if his club always worked this early.

The Pirates addressed a clear offensive weakness this spring, an issue exposed in the National League Division Series. The Pirates were the fourth-worst team against curveballs in 2013, according to Baseball Info Solutions. St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright has one of the sport's best curves. Wainwright beat the Pirates twice in the series and allowed just one run in a complete game effort in Game 5 to end the Pirates' season.

The Pirates will meet Wainwright again at 1:35 p.m. Sunday at PNC Park and will get an early indication of whether their spring work has paid dividends.

“We lit up those machines,” said Hurdle of spring work against curveballs. “We added tilt, right-handed, left-handed. More reps than we've ever done before, more swings than we've ever done before.”

While the Pirates have discussed approaches against off-speed pitches, more than anything Hurdle and first-year hitting coach Jeff Branson decided to throw work and reps at the problem. The Pirates hit and hit and hit against curveballs this spring. They employed a randomly sequenced pitching machine that mixes in 90 mph fastballs, curveballs and sliders,

“We hit off the curveball machines and did a bunch of stuff like that,” Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer said. “We did it last spring, but I don't think we did it every day like we did this year.”

Said Andrew McCutchen of muscle-memory work: “(The coaching staff) basically told us that we needed to do that, so we went out and did.”

No pitching machine can replicate Wainwright's curveball, which ranked as the seventh most effective in the majors in each of the last two seasons, according to Fangraphs.com.

The pitch was taught to Wainwright by his older brother, Trey, in the backyard and streets of their Brunswick, Ga., home. Wainwright said he never has changed his curveball grip, which is unorthodox in that his index finger often raises off the ball.

“I was pretty young when I learned it. It was at a time where it wasn't really a big deal to throw breaking balls as a kid. And I am still a guy who believes, these kids who don't throw their breaking ball until they are in high school, their breaking balls are probably going to stink,” Wainwright said. “You have to develop that just like you would any other pitch. It is a pitch that has so much feel involved with it, usually it's hard to develop that. That's why you see a lot of fastball-slider guys now.

“It's always been a very comfortable pitch for me. I don't like thinking about it a whole lot. It works pretty good.”

The Pirates can attest to that.

In his Game 1 and Game 5 NLDS victories against the Pirates, Wainwright threw a total of 80 curveballs. The Pirates swung and missed at the pitch 21 times. Twenty-three times a curveball was the final pitch of a plate appearance. The Pirates went 1 for 23 against Wainwright's curveball, striking out 11 times.

“It's not just one plane. It's not just here to here, here to here, or here to here,” McCutchen said as he demonstrated the Wainwright curve's various breaks by expanding and contracting the distance between his hands.

To Wainwright, the defining characteristic of his pitch is its speed.

“It's slower. When pitchers can control speeds in 10 mph frames, some in the 90s, some in the 80s some in the 70s, it's much harder for a hitter to be able to time,” Wainwright said.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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