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Projecting Adam Wainwright as a 2016 comeback player of the year candidate

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With his Achilles and throwing elbow issues behind him, look for Adam Wainwright to have a terrific 2016 campaign, making him a viable candidate for comeback player of the year.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

On April 25, 2015, St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright left the game against the Milwaukee Brewers with an apparent torn Achilles, all but ending, or so we thought, his 2015 campaign (as his original timetable for return was set at 9 to 12 months). Yet, five months later, just as Dr. Rick Lehman had predicted from day one, Wainwright was back on the mound for the Cardinals, in a bullpen role, though, as his arm was not quite ready for a starting pitcher workload.

While it would have been nice to have had a healthy Wainwright in 2015 (especially for the playoffs once Carlos Martinez went down), one of the silver linings behind him being limited to 28 innings last season is that we no longer have to hear some variation of "Wainwright has thrown more innings than any other MLB pitcher over the last three seasons" over and over again. His arm should be just about as fresh as it can be for ta 34-year-old as we get closer to pitchers and catchers reporting for duty. Given what we know at this point, we should all expect big things from Wainwright in 2016, and according to a Derrick Goold article from last month, at least one teammate seems to be as well:

"A teammate said Adam Wainwright is returning to full strength "with a chip" on his shoulder after missing most of last year. Wainwright agreed with the diagnosis."

2015 basic PitchF/x information (via BrooksBaseball.net)

Pitch Frequency Velocity (MPH)
Fourseamer 19.00% 90.93
Sinker 23.08% 90.84
Changeup 1.36% 83.71
Curveball 27.83% 75.63
Cutter 28.73% 86.96

The most important takeaway from this table is the diversification of Wainwright's repertoire, with four different pitches being used at least 19% of the time. Remember, in the offseason after the 2014 season, Wainwright underwent an operation on his throwing elbow to trim part of the ligament that had been causing him a great deal of irritation. As Wainwright had put it, he was in so much pain that he could not even remove lids of the top of jars, being forced to turn to his wife for help with the task.

With Wainwright's jar opening abilities limited, it makes you wonder what effect this had on his pitching, particularly those pitches involving a similar hand motion to the one required to open a jar (a counter-clockwise turning motion; note: this originally, and incorrectly, stated "clockwise" motion. I apologize for the error, which has since been corrected). Sure enough, as mentioned in the Rob Rains' article already linked to above, Wainwright was forced into throwing more cutters and curveballs (and this was indeed the case, after fact-checking the statement using BrooksBaseball.net), and this makes perfect sense because these two pitches require a clockwise hand motion rather than the counter-clockwise motion required to open a jar.

What was limited in 2014 (fourseamer, sinker) appears to have no longer been limited in 2015. While we are dealing with a very small sample size (442 total pitches thrown), pitch diversification, particularly something that is limited by injury, should normalize fairly quickly. Thus, barring a major setback during spring training, I do not foresee the inability to throw his fourseamer and sinker with regularity being an issue in 2016.

As I have I written in the past, Wainwright is at his absolute best when he is "setting up" his put-away pitches (curveball, cutter) with his fourseamer and sinker. His supreme command of both pitches makes up for what is lacking in velocity. When utilized correctly, these two pitches keep hitters from sitting on his curveball and cutter, especially when he is facing a batter for the third or fourth time in a given outing.

2015 regular season statistics (via FanGraphs)

G (GS) IP K% BB% ERA FIP fWAR
7 (4) 28 18.0% 3.6% 1.61 2.13 0.9

2016 ZiPS projection (via FanGraphs)

GS IP K% BB% ERA FIP zWAR
23 156 19.5% 5.0% 3.12 3.10 3.6

Honestly, Wainwright's ZiPS projection is more exciting than it appears at first glance. If you have been following Dan Szymborski's release of ZiPS projections over the course of the offseason, you have been seeing #1 starters on other teams being projected at significantly highly than 3.6 zWAR (i.e. Clayton Kershaw: 7.8, Jake Arrieta: 5.4, Zack Greinke: 5.2). What must be noted is that Wainwright is at 3.6 zWAR through only 156 innings pitched, because ZiPS takes into account past injuries when coming up with its playing time projections.

If Wainwright is able to remain healthy for all of 2016, he likely notches at least 200 innings. At 200+ IP, his WAR could be at or even slightly above a full win higher than his projection, firmly placing him in the comeback player of the year discussion. Frankly, if the Cardinals want a legitimate chance at winning the National League Central again in 2016, they will need a 4-5 WAR season from their 34-year-old ace.

I miss baseball.