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Who is the real Adam Wainwright?

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ERA and FIP tell two very different stories.

St. Louis Cardinals v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

This Tweet last week from Site Manager Emeritus Ben Humphrey caught my eye:

That’s some pretty shocking similarity between Wainwright, who seems like he’s been pretty bad, and Leake, who seems like he’s been pretty good.

The statistical disagreement is largely centered around ERA vs. FIP. “Fielding Independent Pitching,” of course, is derived by looking at a pitcher’s strikeout, walk and home run numbers, then adjusted to match the ERA scale. FIP and ERA are generally fairly close, but FIP is the more predictive... so it’s usually worth betting on a players ERA to move in the direction of their FIP.

The biggest difference between Fangraphs and Baseball Reference’s models of WAR is that Fangraphs uses FIP in their calculations, whereas Baseball Reference uses ERA. By Fangraphs model, Adam Wainwright has been worth 1.6 WAR, and is on-pace for nearly 3 WAR over the full season. By Baseball Reference, he has been 0.3 wins BELOW replacement value.

Those are two completely different baseball players. One is a solid, league average starter. The other is no better than some Jobber you could pick up around AAA.

So which one is the real 2017 Adam Wainwright?

The flaw in ERA is fairly obvious: A pitcher can perform pretty badly, allowing many runners to reach base, but get lucky with relatively few of those runners turning into Earned Runs... especially over a short window of time. (And vice-versa).

While FIP is still generally regarded as the better measure of the pitcher’s true talent, the once popular tenet that a pitcher has no (or at least very little) control of what happens to a ball-in-play is now a bit more of an open question. Statcast data lends more credence to the argument that some pitchers are able to limit the quality of contact on batted balls.

My own anecdotal assessment of Adam Wainwright over the past two seasons is that he has been giving up a LOT of hard contact. The numbers seem to bear that out. His career BABIP is just .298, but last year’s was .330 and this year’s is a whopping .354 - career highs. His Hard Contact Percentage is up over 30% for both 2016 and 2017, both also career highs.

I’m just not buying the FIP when it comes to Adam Wainwright. But maybe you are. And I wouldn’t swear that you were wrong to do so.

As I mentioned last week when I looked at starts by Game Score, Wainwright has been the most erratic Cardinals starter. If you only saw the right 13 of his starts this season, you’d swear you were watching something fairly reminiscent of vintage Wainwright.

The boring but likely truth is that 2017 Wainwright’s True Talent Level is probably somewhere between his ERA and FIP. Perhaps he will settle in to provide starts that are more consistent, if average-ish. Otherwise, the Jekyll & Hyde act is likely to continue and leave us wondering which is the true Adam Wainwright.