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The truth about Adam Wainwright and the grooved Derek Jeter pitch

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Yesterday St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright created a social media storm when he spoke about the pitches he delivered to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter to leadoff the All Star Game. Jeter would double in that at bat on a 90 MPH fastball from Wainwright down the middle. In a live in-game interview Wainwright would later say, "I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots. He deserved it." As seen in this Washington Post story covering Wainwright's comments, the reaction was not at all kind. Some immediately took offense at the idea of Wainwright not pitching to Jeter with full effort against Jeter.

By the end of the game Wainwright apparently heard of the controversy, and then went back on air for another in-game interview where he attempted to clarify his comments. Wainwright stated,

What I meant to say was I'm intentionally trying to throw a strike to get him out. It's what I do most of the time, almost all the time. Piping one' is the wrong window for that. It really is. If I'm going to get taken to the slaughterhouse for saying a stupid phrase, then I deserve it. What can you do?"

Since then the debate has been about whether or not Wainwright really did groove a pitch to Jeter, and was just making his later comments once he realized the trouble he caused.

Ultimately only Adam Wainwright knows whether he went easy on Jeter in that at bat. The rest of us are left to consider the circumstantial evidence.

First, let us look at the pitches themselves. Wainwright began by throwing Jeter a ball, which suggests that Wainwright was not, in fact, trying to throw a strike right down the middle to Jeter from the start.

The second pitch, with which Jeter hit the double, was not a great pitch. The 90 MPH fastball seemed to catch much of the plate, perhaps a little inside. This evidence leads one to believe that Wainwright really did groove a pitch to Jeter.

However, those who know Wainwright know that he no longer feature the 93-96 MPH fastball he had in his youth. Wainwright's dominance is now based mostly on movement and control. A 90 MPH fastball is about right at the median velocity Wainwright now sits. If Wainwright really wanted to give Jeter a pitch to hammer he could have "accidentally" hung a cutter, which sits at 86-88 MPH, the ideal velocity for a hitter to pull the ball with authority. Jeter's hit was to the opposite field.

Secondly, let us consider the pitcher.

Wainwright is ultra-competitive, which is probably the number one reason Wainwright has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since 2008. Wainwright was picked to start the All Star Game over Clayton Kershaw, a decision by Manager Mike Matheny which itself generated some controversy since many consider Kershaw the superior talent. Wainwright is loyal to Matheny, and therefore had every incentive to not give up any hits or runs in defense of his manager.

Finally, there is the larger setting of the game.

The St. Louis Cardinals have been in the World Series four of the past ten years. The Cardinals currently find themselves only one game out of the lead for the National Leage Central Division title. Since the winning league in the All Star Game obtains home-field advantage for their respective team in the World Series Wainwright had motivation to pitch competitively.

Wainwright also had every reason to try to get Jeter out with strikes, as Wainwright referred to in the interview.

Jeter is a living legend, but he may have been the weakest hitter in the American League lineup last night. This year Jeter has a .324 on base percentage and a .322 slugging percentage through 371 plate appearances. Mike Trout, hitting directly behind Jeter, has a .400 on base percentage and a .606 slugging percentage. Trout was followed by Miguel Cabrerra, who has a .364 on base percentage and a .534 slugging percentage.

Both Cabrerra and Trout were much more of a threat than Jeter. After going behind 1-0 on Jeter with the first ball, Wainwright had every reason to throw a fastball strike with Jeter's relative lack of power. Wainwright was much better taking his chances that Jeter would hit the ball to a fielder rather than throw another ball and risk giving Jeter a free base with a walk. Given Jeter's slugging percentage, Wainwright could reasonably expect that the worse Jeter would do is single. The fact that Jeter doubled is a testament to Jeter's skill and also to the randomness of baseball, where someone like Ozzie Smith can hit a home run at the most unexpected time.

Wainwright is right in saying that he used the wrong words after leaving the game, but all the circumstantial evidence points to the truthfulness of Wainwright's later statements, when Wainwright claimed that he pitched competitive to Jeter like he would in any other game.

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