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Adam Wainwright in 2016: To be old (is to be good)

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Adam Wainwright has been one of the best pitchers in baseball the last 25 years and neither age nor last year's injury should stop him in 2016.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Wainwright is a shining member of the Cardinals' aging core.  He's been the unquestionable ace and leader of the staff since Chris Carpenter's departure, and if he retired tomorrow he'd be inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame as soon as possible. Regarding Jason Heyward's now way-too-maligned comments on the team's age heading into 2016, Wainwright had this to say at the Winter Warm-ups, as quoted by Derrick Goold:

"Nobody likes being called old, right?" said ace Adam Wainwright, one of the three core players for the team who is in his mid-30s. "But I think they're right, for the most part. We are aging. We're just becoming more wise. Somebody has to get old. If we're still playing and older it means we still have some ability. The more people talk about it, the more we laugh because we just know Matt Holliday is still going to hit well. We know that Yadier (Molina) is still going to catch well. And hopefully we know I'm going to pitch well."

As it pertains to Wainwright's final point, if healthy I don't see a reason to think he won't pitch well.  I realize I'm not breaking ground here.  Dan Szymborki's ZiPS projections for the Cardinals are set to come out today and an early preview indicated that Wainwright is projected to do just fine.  But for the sake of a little background, it's helpful to remember just how good Wainwright had been before tearing his Achilles last year.

When Wainwright took the cursed step out of the batter's box against Milwaukee on April 25, 2015, the Cardinals were 12-4 and had built a three-game cushion in the NL Central by the conclusion of that game.  The feeling at the time though was that with barely a fraction of the season gone, three games was not enough to survive without such a dominating pitcher.  The fact that they would play 146 more games without surrendering their division lead is something a lot of us are still trying to wrap our heads around.

But what made the injury so deflating at the time was that Wainwright was pitching incredibly well.  Granted it was less than four complete starts, but taken from FanGraphs his stats were as follows:

IP

ERA

ERA-

FIP

FIP-

K%

BB%

HR/9

WAR

28

1.61

42

2.13

56

18%

3.6%

0

0.9

A lot of those numbers would have taken a different shape as the season went on but all signs pointed to Wainwright picking up right where he left off.  In 2013, he was possibly the most valuable pitcher in baseball not named Clayton Kershaw.  And his most recent full season, in 2014, he finished third in Cy Young voting and posted the following stats:

IP

ERA

ERA-

FIP

FIP-

K%

BB%

HR/9

WAR

227

2.38

66

2.88

79

19.9%

5.6%

0.4

4.8

Wainwright's ERA (5th), ERA- (8th), and home runs allowed per nine innings (2nd) ranked in the top ten of all of baseball, and by WAR he was the 11th most valuable pitcher.  His strikeout rate and walk rate had dipped from 2013 (22.9% and 3.7%, respectively) but were right around his career average.

Wainwright was also in his age-32 season in 2014, and every pitcher ahead of him in WAR (Kershaw, Corey Kluber, David Price, Felix Hernandez, et al) was younger by at least two years.  Jon Lester, the closest to Wainwright's age, was in his age-30 season and was worth 5.5 wins in 2014.

For some historical context, using FanGraphs Leaderboards and Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, since 1988 when pitch-by-pitch info was first available, there have been 57 pitchers in their age-32 season throw at least 200 innings, and this is where Wainwright’s 2014 stats rank:

  • ERA: 2nd
  • ERA-: 5th
  • FIP: 4th
  • FIP-: 7th
  • K%: 16th
  • BB%: 15th
  • HR/9: 2nd
  • WAR: 10th

Only Greg Maddux (1998) had a better ERA and ERA-.  Only Maddux, Cliff Lee (2011), and Javier Vazquez (2009) had a better FIP and FIP-.  And only Kevin Brown (1997) gave up less home runs per nine innings.

For all pitchers 32 and over, when talking strictly run prevention and using the same 1988 timeframe, there have been only 12 seasons out of a total of 279 in which a pitcher has thrown at least 200 innings and had a lower ERA than Wainwright’s 2.38 in 2014.  Those 12 seasons were the work of just six different pitchers: Randy Johnson (1997, 1999, 2001, 2002), Roger Clemens (1997, 2005), Brown (1998, 2003), Roy Halladay (2010, 2011), Maddux (1998), and Lee (2011).   The takeaway is that Wainwright keeps excellent company because he's really good.  (And by the way, Clemens had a 1.87 ERA in 2005 at age 42 which is insane.)

Of course, skills erode with age so this comparison is set up to Wainwright’s advantage.  As noted, there are 57 32-year olds in the sample of 279 pitchers since 1988 who have thrown 200+ innings, and those numbers diminish as age increases just as you’d think they would.  E.g., there are 39 34-year olds, 24 36-year olds, and so on. Nevertheless, it's fair to say that even though Wainwright is now in his age-34 season, there's nothing to pull from 2014 or 2015 to indicate that he's beginning to yield to that age.

If trying to tabulate lasting effects his injury could have going forward that's a much harder exercise.  Of the top pitchers from the sample above, very few have missed nearly an entire season after age 32 and come back to pitch 200+ innings.  Kevin Brown pitched just 63 2/3 innings in 2002 while struggling with injuries, and rebounded in 2003 to the throw 211 innings and was worth 6.1 fWAR.  Curt Schilling only pitched 93.1 innings in 2005, and 24.1 of those were from the bullpen, due to a recurrent ankle injury, but the following year he threw 204 innings and was worth 4.5 fWAR.  Brown and Schilling were 37 and 38-years old, respectively, the years they were hampered with those injuries, and weren't afforded the years ahead of them that Wainwright still has.

Looking closer to home, in his age-32 and 33 seasons, Chris Carpenter pitched a combined 21.1 innings in 2007 and 2008 due to elbow issues which culminated in Tommy John surgery.  He came back in 2009 and pitched 665 innings (not including the postseason) over the next three seasons, was worth a combined 13.6 fWAR, and along the way won a Cy Young and was their most valuable pitcher in the postseason when the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series.

Unlike Brown and Carpenter, Wainwright is coming off an injury that doesn't involve his pitching arm.  His injury was of the freakish nature which was frustrating because it left you wondering had he taken a slightly different step out of the batter's box might things have been different in 2015 (a season in which the Cardinals still won 100 games - sheesh), but it's also way more comforting than anything that could have involved his pitching arm.  And the unplanned rest might give him some extra mileage which, when talking about a guy who battled a "dead arm" in late 2014, is probably a good thing.

For a recent injury comparison, there's Mark Mulder.  Mulder also ruptured his Achilles and the similarities with Wainwright probably end there.  Mulder's injury occurred in spring training in 2014 while embarking on an improbable comeback in the Angels' minor league system.  Due to shoulder issues, he hadn't pitched since 2008, and the Achilles injury forced him to permanently retire at age 36.  He simply didn't have the overall health or a year of rehab to spare like Wainwright did.

Adam Wainwright will be 34-years old when he likely takes the mound on Opening Night in Pittsburgh this coming April after coming off a season nearly entirely lost to injury.  Somehow from where I'm sitting there's nothing to be worried about because he's been one of the best pitchers in baseball and that should continue into 2016.