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Considering Adam Wainwright as a reliever

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If the age 36 hurler folds in the rotation, a return to the bullpen could still be in the cards.

"For the first time since 1982, St. Louis has a World Series winner."
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There is an adage in sports that the "winner" of a trade is the team that receives the best player.

After being dealt to the Braves prior to the 2004 season, J.D. Drew finally "put everything together" in a healthy year that saw the ex-Cardinal produce 8.6 fWAR, the fourth highest among all MLB hitters and easily the top mark for rigthfielders. Also bolstering Atlanta's outfield that season was platoon bat Eli Marrero, whose 130 wRC+ led the way to 1.7 fWAR and 2.3 rWAR in just 280 plate appearances. What a heist! The Cardinals got fleeced!

Not so fast. Heading back to St. Louis was starter Jason Marquis, who worked over 600 innings over his Cardinals tenure, including 2.5 rWAR for the 2004 National League Champions. In two seasons, lefty relief pitcher Ray King entered 163 games out of the bullpen en route to 1.9 rWAR before netting St. Louis an additional 1.8 wins through a later trade.

Oh, and the Cardinals got Adam Wainwright.

The second most valuable pitcher in the illustrious franchise's history, Wainwright has been a centerpiece of the Cardinals ever since he burst onto the scene as the rookie closer who recorded two of the most famous strikeouts in St. Louis history.

We can reminisce about Wainwright's legacy and greatest moments another time, but today's post concerns what lies ahead in his career.

I don't think it's any secret that Waino's best days are behind him at this point. His peripherals suggest that he pitched better than his 4.62 and 5.11 ERAs in 2016 and 2017 reflect, but the ZiPS projections system pegs him for a 4.09 ERA in 2018 while Steamer is more bearish, arriving at a prediction of 4.40.

As we approach the dawn of Spring Training and the annual round of team preview articles, I wouldn't be surprised the least bit if we read an abundance of words about how Wainwright could be an X factor for the Cardinals this year. This is mainly due to the fact that the potential range of outcomes is so wide for Wainwright. If you told me the elbow issues that plagued him down the stretch last season–and for all intents and purposes throughout his career–prove to be his downfall, I could absolutely envision that scenario. I can also picture a rejuvenated Wainwright who rebounds to the tune of a sub-four ERA. The ace of the last decade is a wild card going forward. Not much is certain for the righty as he enters his contract year.

Barring injury, however, Wainwright is a safe bet to open the year in the starting rotation, especially with Alex Reyes still on the mend from Tommy John surgery and a potential innings limit awaiting other youngsters, namely, Jack Flaherty. The Opening Day rotation currently projects to be some permutation of Martinez-Wacha-Wainwright-Mikolas-Weaver, though the Cardinals need to have contingency plans in place should one or more of those five succumb to injury or ineffective performance.

Regardless of whether or not the Cardinals add another pitcher this offseason, there is a very real chance that Wainwright fails to live up to expectations in 2018. If it becomes clear that he should no longer start, St. Louis would tap into their pitching depth to cover those innings in the rotation. Still, that leaves the question: What happens to Wainwright?

If his arm gives out like it did last August and he physically can't pitch, then a trip to the disabled list would obviously be in store. That said, the possibility exists that Wainwright could still provide the Cardinals value out of the bullpen if he falters in the standard 80-100 pitch capacity asked of starters every five days. (Or alternatively, in a dreamworld where the Cardinals acquire a frontline starter.)

Besides the obvious fact that pitchers perform better in shorter spurts when they are less fatigued and only face opposing batters once or twice, Wainwright's individual repertoire may be better fit for a less physically-taxing role where his outings only last one or two innings.

Quality of Pitch Average (QOPA) is a metric that quantifies the value of every type of pitch a pitcher throws based on its vertical and horizontal break, lateness of break, rise, location, and velocity.

On the QOP Baseball website, the following baselines are listed to give QOPA context:

4.00: Poor quality

4.50: MLB average

5.00: Good quality

5.50: Great quality

6.00: Excellent quality

Adam Wainwright QOPA by pitch

Pitch 2017 QOPA 2016 QOPA 2016-2017 QOPA
Pitch 2017 QOPA 2016 QOPA 2016-2017 QOPA
Curveball 5.21 5.28 5.25
Sinker 4.97 4.98 4.98
Fourseamer 4.70 4.78 4.74
Cutter 4.34 4.45 4.41
Changeup 3.53 4.03 3.77

This table confirms what the eye test told us about Wainwright all along. "Uncle Charlie" is his best friend while the changeup and cutter are below average pitches.

The concern with Wainwright hasn't been him falling behind early in at-bats–his 60.7% first pitch strike rate over the past two seasons is just half a percentage point off his career average–so much as his struggles putting hitters away once he gains the advantage in the count.

With the exception of 2013, when Wainwright's velocity rebounded like it does for most pitchers in their second year after undergoing Tommy John surgery, his strikeout rate with two strikes has declined every season this decade. He also lost more batters to two-strike walks in 2016 and 2017 than in previous years.

The problem obviously can't be that Wainwright lacks a dominant put-away pitch. Even in his regression over the last two years, QOPA still ranked Wainwright's curveball in the 95th percentile. The curve hasn't been generating fewer whiffs to finish opposing hitters because the pitch itself is broken, but because Wainwright hasn't been setting the curveball up as well with his different fastball variations.

To illustrate what I am talking about, here are the 2017 results for Wainwright's curveball based on the previous pitch type.

Adam Wainwright curveball performance by previous pitch

Pitch Type Usage% Whiff% xwOBA xAVG wOBA Ball%
Pitch Type Usage% Whiff% xwOBA xAVG wOBA Ball%
Sinker 24.68% 31.03% 0.237 0.205 0.392 33.33%
Cutter 27.06% 35.82% 0.285 0.245 0.298 29.60%
Fourseamer 20.78% 18.60% 0.325 0.296 0.381 41.67%
Changeup 4.76% 25.00% 0.366 0.390 0.900 59.09%
Curveball 21.21% 28.88% 0.369 0.233 0.381 45.92%

A few takeaways from this data:

  • Because starting pitcher Adam Wainwright must worry about concealing pitches for the next time through the order, he is forced to mix the pitches preluding his bread-and-butter curveball, even if the sequence is ineffective.
  • Between his two other above-average pitches, the fourseamer and sinker, the latter holds the edge in both whiff and ball rate, expected wOBA, and expected batting average. Curveballs following a fourseam fastball had a lower wOBA by 11 points, but the underlying stats suggest that this is merely the byproduct of volatile batted ball luck.

Of course, Wainwright would still need to rely on deception–varying his speeds and movement–to throw hitters off balance and record outs as a reliever. Considering the rarity of true two-pitch pitchers (even Aroldis Chapman has a changeup to go along with his fastball and slider), it is unlikely that any one of Wainwright's pitches would disappear altogether in the bullpen. That said, it would be much easier to explore a plan of attack that mitigates his weaknesses as a reliever than as a starter.

Realistically, we are only going to be discussing the possibility of relegating Wainwright to the bullpen if he pitches his way out of the rotation. Whether you believe it to be the correct approach or not, the fact of the matter is that a starting spot will be Wainwright's to lose entering 2018.

As Ben Godar wrote yesterday, "I hope that in some drawer in the Cardinals front office, there is an envelope labeled 'Paul DeJong backup plan.'"

Ditto for Adam Wainwright.