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What to watch for in Sunday night’s Braves-Cardinals game

Sit on the Wainwright curve; St. Louis success threatened

St. Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs - Game One Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

After a rare bullpen meltdown loss last night, the Braves will try to take the series in an unfavorable matchup on Sunday night. Some brief notes...

Sit on Wainwright’s curveball?

Adam Wainwright is carrying on a long tradition of seemingly-ageless hurlers; the righty has 2.3 fWAR so far in his age-40 season, and has compiled 3 fWAR/200 from his age-36 season onward.

Probably the most obvious reason for his success has been a curveball that’s been his most effective offering for the last decade. Overall, Wainwright hasn’t really done much other than lean on his curveball again and again, and the curveball has delivered above-average pitching in spades. It’s extreme two-plane movement profile is tough for hitters that have become more and more inured to harder, tauter breaking pitches.

In 2021, when Wainwright threw together 3.8 fWAR at age 39, he threw his curve around a third of the time. It was his most popular pitch for most of last season, before leaning a bit more heavily on his sinker towards the end. This year, he started out throwing both his sinker and curve about a fourth (or 30 percent) of the time, until his last few starts, where the curve (and cutter) have leapfrogged the sinker.

While a no-brainer of an adjustment in some ways given the relative quality of the curve compared to the not-good-at-all sinker and four-seamer, Wainwright hasn’t necessarily benefited directly, as the August xFIP of 4.31 is his highest in a month so far (and much higher than his seasonal 3.91 mark). Still, unless he’s immediately going to change course, it behooves the Braves to hunt that curveball. It’s coming frequently, and it has the ability to completely carve up hitters when it surprises them. The rest of his arsenal isn’t anywhere near as concerning. We’ll see what the Braves do, but letting him bamboozle them with curves would be a bad strategy to bring into this game.

St. Louis success

Since the Braves’ great run started in 2018, they’ve had an inordinate amount of success against the Cardinals, which is pretty impressive given that they’re fifth and seventh, respectively, in overall MLB wins in that span. The Braves haven’t lost a regular season series to St. Louis since September 2018; they haven’t lost a series in St. Louis since 2017, under the prior regime and with a half-baked roster.

A matchup between Jake Odorizzi and Adam Wainwright is going to pose a tough test in this regard. The Cardinals are certainly favored, and it’s unclear whether the Braves will even have A.J. Minter, Raisel Iglesias, and Kenley Jansen available given the events that transpired earlier in the series. That’s why beating up on Wainwright’s curveball could be such a big deal — it might be real tough to lock down a close game or hold on to a mid-size lead if Odorizzi is going to be forced to navigate the middle innings with his limited arsenal. Can the Braves find a way anyway? We’ll see.

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