Adam Parrish Wainwright was born in August 1981, in Brunswick, Georgia. A couple months before his 19th birthday, the Atlanta Braves made him their first pick in the 2000 MLB draft. When he was 22, he was the headline piece coming back to the Cardinals when they traded J.D. Drew to the Braves. He’d only been 24 for a couple weeks when he made his first start wearing the birds on the bat in September 2005. Just over 13 months later, he closed out the NLCS and a World Series championship, and a baseball hero was born.
Wainwright closed those games out because in 2006, he made the Opening Day roster as a reliever, and stayed in that role all year. At the time, I don’t recall thinking much about that roster decision. Baseball coverage was less saturated with prospect information then than it is now, so not knowing much about Wainwright beyond a vague “this is the guy they got for Drew and he’s supposed to maybe be good” played a big part in that. Here was a rookie pitcher, who knows if he was good or not, and letting him do a bullpen apprenticeship while they figured that out seemed fine.
Today, however, the decision to not only start Wainwright in a relief role but keep him there all year looks moderately insane. It’s not that he wasn’t good at the job — he was very good at it, with a 71 ERA- that compares neatly to (say) Trevor Rosenthal’s first two years in the St. Louis bullpen. It’s that he was too good at it, especially given how lousy most of the Cardinal rotation was (until the playoffs) in ‘06. Chris Carpenter was awesome, and Jeff Suppan ate innings, but everybody else was just bad. In particular, Jason Marquis was atrocious, with a 6.02 ERA and 5.90 FIP that were unacceptable in that or any other era.
Jason Marquis started 33 games for the 2006 Cardinals, and was worth less than replacement-level value. Meanwhile, a consensus MLB-ready top-100 SP prospect was pitching a couple times a week out of the bullpen, and looking very good doing it. If that happened today... I mean, we’d lose our minds.
But that wouldn’t happen today. Teams just don’t let bad veterans keep turning in bad starts with better-seeming young options behind them anymore. 2006 was, in terms of how baseball teams are run, already a long time ago. 2006’s Wainwright pushes his way into a rotation today. And 2018’s Wainwright, with Jack Flaherty and Alex Reyes pounding on the door...
I know the stereotype of baseball bloggers these days — we’re all wannabe GMs instead of fans, obsessed with efficiency over wins and losses, blah blah. It’s a dumb stereotype for the most part, but it has a kernel of truth to it, and it’s worth reminding oneself sometimes not to embody the stereotype too badly.
So: I’m a huge fan of Adam Wainwright, and this sucks to write.
I’m not going to sit here and say he’s definitely cooked. Sometimes guys aren’t physically right for a while, and then they get better. Sometimes velocity comes back. And movement. And command. All the things that allow a pitcher to exert his will on a hitter — attack him with a plan that goes beyond “there are fielders behind me.” Maybe that will happen for Adam Wainwright. But until it does, he has no business starting games for the St. Louis Cardinals, because he has none of those things.
Some numbers: after yesterday’s start against San Diego, Waino has thrown 18 innings in 2018. He’s struck out 17% of the batters he’s faced (bad) and walked 16% (very bad). His contact-quality stats are actually okay — a very high soft-hit rate, and a low hard-hit rate — but that’s not really comforting, because a pitcher’s contact quality allowed is much more about how hitters execute than about what the pitcher does. The timely double plays and stranded runners won’t last forever. Yes, it’s only 18 innings, but by the numbers Wainwright has pitched terribly in 2018.
And I’m not too sure the numbers are the important things to look at right now — at least not “the numbers” how we usually mean that. Wainwright simply isn’t eye-testing as a capable MLB starter right now. There have been a couple games where his velocity looked approximately normal — sinkers around 90, curves in the low 70s — but there have been other games when the pitch-tracking algorithms don’t even know what this crap is that they’re looking at. There have been a bunch of things Brooks Baseball thinks are changeups that are actually 84-mph attempts at sinkers. The MLB At Bat app actually called something an eephus yesterday, and I am not making that up. Wainwright keeps throwing pitches that modern databases can’t make sense of, because guys who throw pitches like that aren’t major-league pitchers.
So I know what I usually do here is make a case for something with numbers. But this time, I’m not going to bother. Watch that Padres game. Waino can’t throw it hard at all for more than an inning or two, and can’t throw it where he wants. It’s a failure at the task of pitching, at the most elementary level. I am not going to play the hindsight game and pretend we should have seen this coming. I’m with Craig Edwards on his preseason take. But right now, it should be clear to anybody clear-headed that Wainwright can’t keep starting games until he looks... not like this. The games are just too important.
If this were anybody but Adam Wainwright, Franchise Icon, I don’t think he’d have made the rotation out of spring, and I certainly don’t think he’d still be in it. To everybody’s credit, it sounds based on post-game comments like everybody gets it. Waino himself admitted that he needs to “pause” and let the young guys — the 2006 versions of himself, basically — be in there over him until he can justify his own rotation spot. Maybe he’s going to the DL again; it’s not clear as I write this (late Sunday night).
I don’t know what they should do with him. Maybe he should stay on the DL until he can sustain velocity again, but that means accepting a chance that he’s done for good. Which, I don’t care about the baseball stuff, is a tough pill to swallow. Me personally — with the knowledge that I’m missing a whole lot of information that the team has — I’d put him in the bullpen. Matheny likes having a designated mop-up guy. Let him do that, getting regular work in low-leverage spots. If his arm bounces back, great. If not...
That “if not” sucks. Adam Wainwright got his start 12 years ago, pitching out of the bullpen for a manager with no good reason to keep lesser options in the rotation. Today, he’s pitching for another manager, one again with no good reason to keep lesser options in the rotation — and who this time is working in an analytical environment that likely won’t allow the same mistake to be repeated. Wainwright is presently not a rotation option. I suspect he’s made too much money and experienced too much success to embrace a full-time relief role going forward. That opens up a real possibility that we’re seeing the end of his career right now, in real time.
It’s one thing to emotionally react to a bad game and say I’m tired of seeing this guy pitch. It’s quite another to realize that yes, eventually you’re going to get your wish: one of these times, you’ll just never see him pitch again. It wasn’t this time, but it’s one of these times.
Wainwright’s contract is up after this year. Unless his arm bounces back quite a bit, his options will be to retire, or swallow his pride and pitch for a shitty rebuilding team. Nobody wanted it to end like this. Maybe it won’t, still, somehow. But baseball isn’t Hollywood, and not many of our heroes actually get happy endings.