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Adam Wainwright is up there in age, BABIP

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Another reason to expect a better 2017

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

So here’s something I didn’t know but probably should have: Opponents’ batting average on balls in play against Adam Wainwright in 2016 was way above the National League average. Thirty-two points above it (.330 vs. .298), in fact. His BABIP was the fourth worst in the National League in 2016, and the worst mark for any Cardinals starter since the mound was lowered in 1969. And, if you go back to 1988 when pitch tracking data first became available, it’s the 23rd worst in the NL out of a total of 1,241 seasons for qualified starters – squarely in the 1.9 percentile.

Joe Schwarz pointed out several times throughout the year that Wainwright didn’t have his best stuff in 2016. Wainwright allowed a high percentage of line drives, and though batters were putting hard contact on his pitches at a mark right around league average, it was still at a rate well above Wainwright’s career mark (31.2% vs. 26.7%). All of this probably contributed to his inflated BABIP.

Still, the logical inference in a pitcher’s BABIP that high above league average as well as his own career average (.295) is that he was a bit unlucky and Wainwright probably was. But here’s something else I actually did know about Wainwright: [whispers] He’s kind of old. 2016 was his age-34 season. Maybe a natural decline is another contributing factor here.

Curious, I took a look at pitchers with high BABIPs since 1988 in their age-34 season or later with the goal of seeing if their BABIP stabilized the following year. A 38-year old A.J. Burnett in 2015 was the only player in the NL to have a higher BABIP than Wainwright’s .330. Burnett’s was .336 and he was out of baseball the following year so that was a pretty unsatisfying search. Therefore, I expanded the search to both leagues using the same parameters from above. So excluding Burnett, the following were the only players to eclipse .330 during or after their age-34 season:

  • Colby Lewis - .339 (2014), age-34
  • Andy Petitte - .333 (2008), age-36
  • Bobby Witt - .333 (1999), age-35
  • Tommy John - .332 (1988), age-45
  • Bert Blyleven .331 (1988), age-37
  • Jack Morris .330 (1994), age-39

Morris never pitched again after 1994, and Witt and John each threw less than 100 innings before being out of baseball. In 2015, Lewis’s BABIP dropped fifty points to .289 and his ERA also dipped to 4.66 from 5.14. In 2009, Petitte’s BABIP dropped thirty-eight points to .295 and his ERA saw a similar slide to 4.16 from 4.54 in 2008. For reference, Lewis and Petitte’s career BABIPs were .294 and .308, respectively.

Looking at just 34-year olds with a baseline of a .320 BABIP, Lewis in 2014 was the only pitcher to have a higher BABIP than Wainwright. The rest of the bunch were as follows:

  • Mark Leiter - .326 (1997)
  • Livan Hernandez - .326 (2009)
  • Ryan Dempster - .324 (2011)
  • Jim Deshaies - .324 (1994)
  • Andy Petitte - .324 (2006)
  • Jon Lieber - .323 (2004)
  • Randy Johnson - .320 (1998)

Leither and Deshaies didn’t pitch enough innings following this season to qualify for an ERA title. Hernandez, Dempster, Petitte, Lieber, and Johnson all saw improvements the following year in both BABIP and ERA. Petitte’s improvement was mild to the point of hardly being noticeable while the others improved dramatically and came in below or near their career averages. For example, in 2010, Hernandez’s BABIP dropped to .287 and his ERA went from 5.44 to 3.66.

What do these small samples tell us? Probably nothing other than the fact that starters in their age-35 season or older are rare (only 6.6% in 2016 for pitchers who threw at least 100 innings), and a pitcher’s BABIP near or above .330 is even more so. To point out that a pitcher allowing that many hits on balls in play is likely to see some better fortune the following year is probably a surprise to very few.

Still, in spite of his age, that should apply to Adam Wainwright. His best years are probably behind him, but his track record shows that if healthy he is still good for 200 innings a year. I wish I had been aware of his 2016 BABIP information on Monday when arguing that the Cardinals will likely improve their run prevention numbers in 2017 but regardless, that position is looking more and more reasonable.

Credit to FanGraphs Leaderboards for the stats in this post.