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The Wainwright Question

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In yesterday's P-D article it was noted with Izzy's recovery moving faster then originally anticipated, moving Adam Wainwright back into the rotation is now more of a possibility then ever. Opinions differ on whether or not Adam can or even should jump into the rotation since he's proven to be such a valuable commodity in relief. That impression certainly was reinforced this past October saving 4 games in the playoffs, which included 2 of the most memorable strikeouts in Cardinal history this side of Bruce Sutter. So, is Wainwright more effective as a starter or as a reliever?

Nate Silver at BP had an interesting article about about the same question being applied to the Red Sox's Jonathon Papelbon. I'll take you through his process and see what conclusions it draws about AW.

Let's say that if Wainwright were to continue his career in the bullpen as a set up man assuming Izzy comes back as the Cardinal closer. And let's just say he continues to pitch 75 innings a season at a 3.12 ERA like he did in '06. What ERA would he need in 200 innings as a starter to be as equally effective?

In order to figure that out, we need to account for a couple of things, leverage and replacement level. The typical set up man comes into a game with a leverage index of 1.20, meaning that a run he prevents has 1.2 times more of an effect then a run prevented in the top of the first. (That's just an educated guess, if you really want to get an accurate number find out the leverage index of the 20 MLB pitchers with 20 holds or more and average it out.)

The replacement level issue is another ball of wax. Nate Silver estimated that a reliever who becomes a starter will have a 75% higher ERA then when he was a reliever. Why exactly, I'm not quite sure, but I trust he knows what he's talking about. He also assumes a replacement level reliever can turn in a 4.00 ERA being that he's only pitching and inning more or less and heading to the showers. That estimate seems a tad bit generous to me, I'm going to go with an ERA of 5.00. And for a starter, let's say a Jason Marquis-ish 6.00 ERA is replacement level.

IP ERA Rep. Lev. Leverage RAR
Reliever 75 3.12 5.00 1.20 19.2
Starter 200 5.17 6.00 1.00 19.2

According to this method, in order for Wainwright to match his value in the pen, he need only to manage a 5.17 ERA, something we can be fairly certain he can achieve. Ok, now I'm interested in seeing if it were held to Mr. Silver's higher standards for replacements.

IP ERA Rep. Lev Leverage RAR
Reliever 75 3.12 4.00 1.20 9.6
Starter 200 4.56 5.00 1.00 9.6

By these standards it gets a little more dicey here for Adam, but I believe Wainwright could hit that ERA mark. The bigger question here is can he pitch that many innings? It's hard to say for sure, but it was just 2005 when Wainwright threw 182 innings in AAA, and he has pitched 150 innings a total of 4 times in his minor league career.

What also needs to be taken into consideration is that Wainwright's role will not be filled with a replacement level pitcher. It'll be filled by Braden Looper, who while he his flaws and limitations, he also has a career average 3.57 ERA. Wainwright allowed 3 runs less then Looper and pitched a couple of innings more. That leaves an opening for reliever that can be trusted with higher leverage situations, but from what we learned in the playoffs is that there are several candidates from within who can maybe do the job. And it wouldn't hurt for Jocketty to scour the market for this season's Al Reyes.

That's a numbers way of looking at it, how about from a scout's angle? First of all, consider Wainwright's stuff. From what I've seen is he's got a nice fastball that he can dial up to 95, but I'd figure as a starter he'll be more in the the 89-92 mph range on a consistent basis. We all know his curveball is his bread and butter as a reliever, a feared out pitch along the same lines of Gagne's change or K-Rod's power curve. However, I doubt it will freeze batters as much when they see it 3 or 4 times a game, but it certainly will remain an effective weapon. While he'll need more then 2 pitches to be successful as a starter, he has shown decent sinker evidenced by his 47% groundball rate, and I've also seen him slip in a sharp-breaking cutter occasionally. I have doubts his K rate will stay at 8.6 per 9 innings as they did as a reliever, I figure about 6.5-7 strikeouts per nine for Wainwright, which is still pretty darn good. A couple of things that will bear watching should he end up in the rotation:

  1. His walk rate. Will he be able to concentrate and be consistent with his mechanics over all those innings?
  2. Extra base hits. Does he really have the stuff that produces weakly hit balls, or will he routinely get pounded for extra bases? Merely looking at Wainwright's minor league numbers, he's done a good job overall at keeping the ball in the park, as long as you throw out the poor performance of 2004 which was shortened by injury.
Based on all this, here's my crude projection for Wainwright the starter in 07:

13-9, 186 IP, 58 BB, 147 K, 22 HR, 1.25 WHIP, 4.09 ERA. In other words, he'll effectively replace Suppan and is much more useful as a starter then a reliever. The caveat whether or not Izzy can return back to form, and I'm of the persuasion he can, though I'm sure he'll continue to make it more interesting then we all would like.

Am I nuts to expect this? Or do you think he'll do better/worse?