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How Soon is Too Soon to Panic About Adam Wainwright?

Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals' supposed ace, has been the club's worst starter so far in 2016. How worried should we be?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

For something like nearly a decade now, Adam Wainwright has been a mainstay of the Cardinal rotation. He's been the anchor of the staff for the majority of that time, as well; since moving to the starting rotation at the beginning of the 2007, Wainwright has served as the primary innings driver of the staff. Chris Carpenter may have still been the ace of the staff for parts of Adam's tenure as starter, but given Carp's unpredictable nature -- in terms of availability and health, not quality of performance or volume of expletives -- it has been the tall Georgian who has, year after year, done that most important of starting jobs by taking the ball every fifth day and providing not just quality, but the quantity that every major league team needs.

He is Waino.  He is the Wagonmaker. He is A.D.A.M., the giant curveball-throwing robot sent to deliver all Cardinalkind from their enemies. He's the guy who, when you need a bulk of quality innings, is going to deliver, day after day and year after year.

Well, you know, except for the times when he hasn't.

Don't get me wrong; I love Adam Wainwright as much as anyone. There is something aesthetically pleasing about watching him pitch I find particularly lovely. I even appreciate the Mayberry-esque goofy wholesomeness of Wainwright, in a way I very, very rarely find endearing in anyone else. But, you know, I mean, he actually hasn't been the most dependable pitcher. When healthy, he has been, sure. But the caveat, "when healthy," could apply to a lot of players, couldn't it? Hell, Chris Carpenter, the guy I just a few moments described as unpredictable, was dependable as anyone, except when he wasn't. Healthy, that is.

Wainwright, as good as he has been, and as reliable, has missed huge chunks of time in his career. He became a full-time starter in 2007 (remember when there were debates about whether he should stay in the closer's role or move back to starting?), and since that time has thrown over 1500 innings in the rotation. That's a large workload, and a big part of the reason the Redbirds have been as dominant as they have been for much of that time period. On the other hand, Wainwright missed nearly half the 2008 campaign with a torn tendon in his finger. (Almost as tough to remember as the starter/closer debate, no?) He then missed the entire 2011 season following Tommy John surgery, after two healthy seasons of ace-level performance (ERA+ of 155 and 160 in '09 and '10, respectively). Coming back from the injury, 2012 saw Wainwright a little shakier than before, still posting very solid fielding-independent numbers but somewhat less able to avoid all mistakes the way he had. The next season, however, A.D.A.M. was back to fully dominating, pushing his walk rate down to a new elite level and putting together the best year of his career en route to a second Cy Young runner-up finish.

It was more of the same in 2014, with Waino actually posting an even better ERA than the previous season -- though he wasn't quite as dominant by the FIP-type numbers -- and coming in third in the Cy Young race. There were dark clouds on the horizon, though, as he pitched much of the season with a sore elbow, particularly worrisome in light of his previous surgical history, and in fact required a cleanup procedure in the joint following the season. Going into 2015, it was very much a concern for at least a fair number of us who follow the team what Adam's health was going to look like in both the short and long term.

And then, of course, he goes out and tears his Achilles tendon, missing nearly the entire season. The good news was it wasn't an arm injury; the bad news is he still threw roughly 200 fewer innings in 2015 than he had in '14.

So in eight years of Wainwright being a starting pitcher, he has missed almost two and a half full seasons, or something like 25-30% of his potential starts. I wonder, if the time missed happened to be spread out rather than concentrated, would we still think of Wainwright as durable and dependable? If, rather than missing his time in big chunks, Adam simply missed, say, eight or nine starts every year with injuries, how differently would we look at him? He'd still be missing a quarter or so of all his potential appearances; I suspect it would change our perception of him, though.

I have not come to bury Caesar, though, nor to praise him. I have come, rather, to ask whether Adam's early performance in the admitted near-infancy of this season is something we should be truly worried about. To be sure, the numbers are not pretty, to put it lightly: through three starts, Waino has an 8.27 ERA, 4.91 FIP, and a 6.17(!) xFIP.

Those are bad enough, but digging a bit further the underlying numbers are upside-down as well. Wainwright's strikeout rate this season is just 9%, compared to a career mark of 20.5%. His walk rate is 11.5%, giving him the rare negative K-BB% differential, never a good look. That BB% is also nearly double his career mark of 6.1%, so again, not good. Just as worrying, Adam has been allowing contact in the air so far this year in a way he virtually never does, with a near-even split of grounders to flyballs. In his best years, Wainwright has gotten right around 50% groundballs on contact, while limiting balls in the air to 30% or less. He's actually been below 30% FB rate every year since returning from Tommy John, in fact.

The Adam Wainwright Success Plan looks something like this: limit walks to an absolute bare minimum, strikeout an above-average but not elite amount of batters, and keep the ball on the ground. So far in 2016, Wainwright is doing exactly zero of those things. He's also allowing more hard contact than he ever has; his career Hard% is 26.3; this year 41% of his contact allowed has fallen into the 'hard' category. So no strikeouts, lots of walks, lots of hard contact, in the air. not anyone's recipe for success.

Going even a bit deeper, we can look at Wainwright's results in terms of contact rate and the like. Batters are chasing pitches out of the zone somewhat less often than in the past, with a 28.6% out of zone swing rate this year, compared to being more in the 32% neighbourhood most seasons, but that could very well just be a sampling issue. We are, after all, dealing with a very small total number of pitches thrown so far.

Interestingly, there is a marked difference in the number of pitches inside the strike zone batters have swung at from Wainwright the past two seasons. From 2012-2014, Waino's z-swing rates were 62.0%, 63.1%, and 63.3%. That's remarkably consistent. In 2015, however, that number suddenly jumped, up to 70.6%. This year, it's even higher, at 72.3%. To be fair, again, we are dealing with a small sample, but the fact hitters are swinging so much more often at the strikes Adam throws makes me wonder if there isn't something substantially different about the quality of the strikes he is throwing, to the point hitters are getting better looks overall. Or, perhaps, Waino has simply become such a strike-thrower that hitters are more aggressive? I don't know, and that's hard to tease out, particularly without a full research project breaking down heat maps and pitch locations in full.

Continuing on through the plate discipline numbers, we come to one truly terrifying number, that of Wainwright's Z-Contact percentage. Z-Contact%, in case you aren't aware, measures the percentage of pitches within the zone that a hitter makes contact with when swinging. So of the strikes a pitcher throws and the hitter swings at, how many of those pitches does the hitter hit?

For his career, Adam Wainwright's z-contact% has hovered between 89-90% virtually ever year. Extremely consistent, and very indicative of the type of pitcher he is. (It should be noted, that contact does not necessarily means balls in play, just contact.) Wainwright has always excelled at throwing strikes, getting relatively weak contact in the zone, and getting hitters to expand the zone and chase. The fact his chase numbers are down a bit is concerning, in that it suggests hitters are seeing the ball better, or perhaps it's more a function of the counts he's getting into not being advantageous. Again, tough to tease out the exact cause for this. The really scary number is, as I mentioned, that z-contact percentage.

In his career, Waino has gotten a swing and miss inside the zone roughly one out of every ten swings. This season, his z-contact% is 96.3, meaning he's only getting a swing and miss inside the zone on about one out of every 25. That is very, very scary.

The further question, of course, is whether that inability to get empty swings inside the zone is a function of reduced quality of stuff, worse location, or something else. Looking at the indispensable Brooks Baseball's data, it doesn't immediately jump out that Adam's velocity is noticeably worse this year. His fastball velocity is almost exactly where it was in April of last year -- slower than when he came back as a reliever, but that's to be expected -- and down maybe half a mile per hour from 2014 numbers. And, again, small sample alert. The sinker, change, cutter, and curve are all coming in with roughly the same velocity as in the past. So if he's nursing an injury, it's not showing up yet in terms of a velocity loss.

In terms of movement, everything looks pretty similar as well. The sinker seems to be moving horizontally a little less than usual, but nothing huge. The changeup looks flat, with significantly less vertical movement than usual, but we're also dealing with a handful of pitches. Of course, the fact it's flat could very well be indicative of the pitch being terrible this year so far, but I hesitate to say that indicates a ton about Adam going forward.

There is, however, this thing, which is worrisome: 


What that is is Adam Wainwright's vertical release point. You'll notice all his pitches appear to be coming from a slightly lower arm slot than usual, suggesting perhaps Adam is simply getting 'under' his pitches slightly, causing them to flatten out, or be more hittable. We are talking about fractions of inches, of course, but sometimes that's all it takes. We see pitchers occasionally dropping their arm slots as a result of an injury, which is why the fact Adam's release point is lower is specifically concerning, but then again, we are obviously still dealing with very little data, so it's more likely to simply be a matter of not finding the right slot, rather than being unable to.

So, with all of this in mind, I will ask the question the title of this article posits: how soon is too soon to panic about Adam Wainwright? Certainly, it seems like now is a bit too soon; three starts do not a season make, and if the manager had half a brain in his head when it comes to pulling pitchers Waino would have been out of the game earlier yesterday, sparing us some of the graphic violence we witnessed as he was battered by the Cincinnati bats. But this run of three starts has been really ugly. And remember, the last time we saw Wainwright on the mound as a starter, we were all holding our collective breath, wondering if he would be able to hold up, or if the elbow issues of 2014 represented a slide toward ineffectiveness and injury. He missed most of the season due to an injury of the non-arm variety, which is both encouraging and discouraging in equal measure, and now we have something that looks a little bit, sort of, kinda, busted.

It's probably too early. Almost definitely too early. But this is a 34 year old pitcher with one elbow reconstruction already on his record, who experienced further elbow issues less than two years ago, has thrown a ton of innings, and suddenly doesn't appear able to sneak anything by anyone. So, you know.

Too early.

But maybe not a lot too early.