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Adam Wainwright’s historic offensive 2016

On this Thanksgiving weekend, be thankful for Adam Wainwright.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

2016 was perhaps the worst pitching season of Adam Wainwright’s career. After years as the ace of the St. Louis Cardinals rotation, Wainwright had a career-worst (excluding his two innings pitched in 2005) earned-run average and fielding-independent pitching and was clearly behind Carlos Martinez in any Cardinals starters power rankings that one could imagine. And yet, by some measures, Adam Wainwright had one of the greatest seasons of your lifetime.

While Adam Wainwright has long been a serviceable offensive player for a pitcher, it was in 2016 that his performance reached a previously unprecedented level. In 69 plate appearances, Wainwright had a .226 batting average and, most dramatically, had a .258 isolated power, the result of a strange season in which Wainwright had only three singles, with eight doubles, a triple, and two home runs. Only 12 of baseball’s 146 qualified hitters surpassed Wainwright’s isolated power—Wainwright’s power surpassed that of elite offensive performers such as Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, and Joey Votto.

To go with his 69 plate appearances, Wainwright had 18 runs batted in, tripling his previous career high. His RBI total was over 26% of his plate appearance total, a ratio only reached by fifteen players in Major League Baseball history with as many plate appearances as Wainwright. He was the first player with such a plate appearance to RBI rate since 1998, and no pitcher had such a rate in history. Only Mule Watson, with 11 RBI in 37 plate appearances for the 1924 New York Giants, managed such a ratio in even half as many plate appearances as Adam Wainwright last season.

RBI can be used as shorthand for a player’s clutchness, but it is also flawed in the sense that some pitcher RBI come in lower-leverage situations. Luckily, for the sake of pseudo-deifying baseball players, there exists a “Clutch” statistic—it measures a player’s performance in high-leverage situations in which a game’s outcome is hanging in the balance relative to his performance under ordinary circumstances. And in 2016, Adam Wainwright had one of the most clutch seasons in baseball history.

His “Clutch” was measured at 0.7, in and of itself a useless statistic, so here’s some context—Wainwright was as “clutch” offensively in 2016 as Yoenis Cespedes, Charlie Blackmon, or Carlos Santana, and only Yadier Molina surpassed Wainwright among Cardinals players. And only 23 players in MLB history had more plate appearances in a season than Wainwright while averaging at least 0.1 “clutch” per plate appearance, as Wainwright did.

By Win Probability Added, Adam Wainwright had the 6th most significant offensive game on the season for the Cardinals, trailing two games from Matt Carpenter, a Yadier Molina game, and (drum roll) games from Tommy Pham and Eric Fryer. But while each of these players had no fewer than four plate appearances by which to accumulate WPA, Adam Wainwright did it in one plate appearance (this one). And while his WPA was not high enough to be in the upper reaches of MLB’s most impactful games on the season, it was the 18th best offensive game on the season by players with only one plate appearance (#1 by a wide margin was Adam Lind, who hit a three-run walkoff home run).

With his pinch-hit two-run double in the 10th inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Wainwright had the third most valuable offensive performance by a pitcher in 2016. He also had the fourth most valuable offensive performance by a pitcher in 2016, with his May 2 game against the Philadelphia Phillies, in which Wainwright led off the third inning with a double and then hit a three-run home run to tie the game in the fourth.

By season WPA, Adam Wainwright had the 18th highest WPA in history among pitchers. It was the best season since Claude Osteen of the 1972 Los Angeles Dodgers. Only six pitchers with at least ten plate appearances on the season had positive WPA (for perspective on how low of a threshold ten PAs is, even for pitchers, one of the pitchers on this list is JA Happ of the American League’s Toronto Blue Jays)—only Jose Fernandez was within half of Wainwright’s plate appearances, and Edwin Jackson’s 0.107 WPA was easily the next best of the group, and it was still less than one-seventh of Wainwright’s.

But to look at WPA on an even more micro level, Wainwright’s WPA of 0.445 only on his pinch-hit double in Pittsburgh was better than the WPA of only one pitcher on the entire season other than Adam Wainwright.

Although it was Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs who won the NL pitcher Silver Slugger Award, Wainwright had a reasonable case even beyond his ability to take advantage of circumstance and produce heavily in leverage-related statistics. While Arrieta sported a slightly higher wRC+ (91 vs. Wainwright’s 89), he struck out much more frequently (40% vs. 24.6%) and Arrieta may have been the beneficiary of above-average BABIP luck—while Wainwright had a pedestrian, even somewhat underwhelming .279 batting average on balls in play, Arrieta had an astonishingly high .429 BABIP.

Adam Wainwright will almost certainly be less valuable by WPA or clutch measurements next year just by circumstance, though his commendable and impressive performance in 2016 was nevertheless a delight that we ought to never forget.