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The case for Adam Wainwright in the rotation

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Wainwright will start on Monday. Here’s why it’s a defensible decision.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On Monday, it was announced that Adam Wainwright, future Cardinal Hall of Famer, will be starting next Monday against the Pittsburgh Pirates. If this was announced two weeks ago, it would probably be received poorly. Given the recent pitching struggles, I’m not entirely sure this post is necessary anymore. Nonetheless, I will argue why starting Wainwright on Monday is perfectly defensible.

It is important, in situations like these, to not only look at the performance of what some would deem a questionable choice to go into the starting rotation, but the other options available. Context is everything. Wainwright isn’t going to be kicking Greg Maddux out of the rotation by pitching on Monday. The rotation now looks different than it looked when Wainwright first got hurt, and that comparison is not doing today’s rotation any favors.

When Wainwright last started a game, the rotation was Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Luke Weaver, and Michael Wacha. John Gant momentarily took Wainwright’s place for a few starts until Carlos Martinez was going to return from injury. Alex Reyes was also rehabbing and nearing a return. In just a couple weeks’ time, it looked like Gant would be the Cardinals 7th option to start. He’s currently the 3rd best starter in the rotation. (It’s a close race between him and Austin Gomber admittedly, but 3rd or 4th best doesn’t quite have the same ring to it)

The current rotation still has Mikolas and Flaherty. They are the unquestioned top two starters. Gant and Gomber also appear to have the 3rd and 4th spots lined up. They have shown a good mix of promise and results to warrant them the rotation spots for the rest of the season. That leaves the fifth spot. There appear to be four legitimate candidates for the fifth rotation spot: Wainwright, Weaver, Daniel Poncedeleon, and Tyson Ross. None of them are ideal in a tight playoff race, but these are the options. Let’s compare.

Adam Wainwright

2018 Stats: 4 GS, 18 IP, 17.1 K%, 15.9 BB%, 4.00 ERA, 5.59 FIP, 5.62 xFIP

Rehab Stats: 7 G, 21 IP, 30.9 K%, 4.9 BB%, 0.00 ERA, 2.08 FIP, 3.22 xFIP

Wainwright’s stats are scattered across Palm Beach (3 IP), Springfield (10 IP), and Memphis (9 IP). All four of his walks came in Memphis (11.1 BB%), which I do not find particularly encouraging. But he did pitch good across the board during his rehab innings. Given his career and recent performance, ZiPS and Steamer have a rest of the season projection for him.

ZiPS: 2 GS, 12 IP, 18.9 K%, 7.5 BB%, 4.31 ERA, 4.09 FIP

Steamer: 2 GS, 11 IP, 18 K%, 8 BB%, 4.32 ERA, 4.30 FIP

Both projection systems agree on what type of pitcher the numbers tell us he will be in the future. He is a slightly below average pitcher with a low K rate and normal BB rate. NOW, the main issue as it pertains to Wainwright is that it might not be accounting for the decline in the quality of his pitches. There might be something specifically about Wainwright that the projection systems aren’t catching. They are just looking at the numbers. If you’ve watched Wainwright the past year and a half, you can kind of tell he doesn’t have much left in the tank.

Luke Weaver

2018 Stats: 28 G (25 GS), 133.1 IP, 20.1 K%, 8.4 BB%, 4.59 ERA, 4.21 FIP, 4.33 xFIP

2nd half: 30.1 IP, 15.7 K%, 9 BB%, 4.15 ERA, 4.80 FIP, 4.72 xFIP

You will notice that Luke Weaver’s stats over the full season are pretty freaking close to Wainwright’s projected stats. He strikes out a little more, walks a little more. The problem with Weaver is not necessarily his 2018 stats, though they aren’t great. It’s that he’s either worn down, in some sort of slump, or has just lost his mechanics since the All-Star break. Any number of explanations for why he’s been so bad in the 2nd half. It doesn’t really matter. The Cardinals don’t have time to let him figure it out at the moment.

ZiPS: 4 GS, 20 IP, 20.7 K%, 6.9 BB%, 4.10 ERA, 3.92 FIP

Steamer: 5 G, 7 IP, 25.8 K%, 6.5 BB%, 3.48 ERA, 3.49 FIP

Steamer assumes Weaver spends the rest of the year in the bullpen, while ZiPS has him as a starter. Steamer’s stats are not particularly useful for this post, but I thought it’d be interesting to see how he projects in the bullpen. I am relatively certain Weaver will have the best projections of anybody in contention here. In fact, I’m pretty certain he has better projections than anyone in the rotation whose name doesn’t rhyme with Mack or Niles. However, for the next 20 or so games, I’m going to need to see Weaver look like old Weaver before I put any trust in it. Over a full season next year? Okay I’ll go with the projections. But not with the way he’s recently looked.

Daniel Poncedeleon

2018 Stats: 8 G (3 GS), 25 IP, 21.8 K%, 10.9 BB%, 2.88 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 4.88 xFIP

AAA Stats: 18 GS, 96.1 IP, 26.9 K%, 12.2 BB%, 2.24 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 4.83 xFIP

I... I did not realize he walked that many hitters in Memphis. That is a lot of walks. You really have to have a lot of faith that Poncedeleon has a special ability to have a low HR/FB% to believe in him. That, or not believe in advanced stats. He did post a low HR/FB% throughout the minors, buuuut the MLB is a much different beast. Just ask Austen Williams (He allowed 3 HRs to the Cardinals on Tuesday in one inning after not allowing any in the minors this year.)

ZiPS: 2 GS, 10 IP, 17.4 K%, 10.9 BB%, 4.87 ERA, 4.94 FIP

Steamer: 2 GS, 13 IP, 21.1 K%, 10.5 BB%, 4.69 ERA, 4.87 FIP

I will take the over on strikeouts posted by ZiPS, though honestly, I’m a little surprised the BB% is “only” 10.9% given, well, this entire season. Poncedeleon has one massive weakness in his game that he’ll need to improve: too many flyballs. Allowing a lot of flyballs in the minors might work, but I can’t imagine you’ll get away with a 50 FB% in the majors for very long. Yes, he literally had a 50 FB% in the minors, as in half of the balls that made it fair against Poncedeleon were flyballs. Put it this way. Poncedeleon has allowed 2 HRs in 25 innings and the numbers say he should have allowed closer to 4 if his HR/FB% were league average.

Tyson Ross

2018 Stats: 28 G (23 GS), 143.2 IP, 19.1 K%, 9.9 BB%, 4.13 ERA, 4.47 FIP, 4.28 xFIP

Cardinal Stats: 6 G (1 GS), 20.1 IP, 11.4 K%, 10.1 BB%, 2.21 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 4.59 xFIP

I’m going to take a wild guess and say you expected his Cardinals stats to be better. I mean sure shiny ERA and all, but he has struck out hitters less than Joel Pineiro in his prime. But without the prime Joel Pineiro ability to not walk batters. I just wanted to remind you guys of Joel Pineiro really. Go look at his amazing 2009 again. Anyway, those stats pretty much hang with any of the candidates, so let’s see what the projections say.

ZiPS: 3 GS, 15 IP, 17.9 K%, 10.4 BB%, 4.98 ERA, 4.73 FIP

Steamer: 3 G (1 GS), 8 IP, 17.1 K%, 8.6 BB%, 4.47 ERA, 4.41 FIP

These numbers are underwhelming to say the least. I guess I should mention the elephant in the room that Ross gets a cash bonus every time he starts. That’s probably not going to help him. Granted, there’s not really a lot in his numbers that suggests he has a good case for starting anyway. I won’t pretend money won’t factor in the equation, but if Ross was legitimately better than other options, I think he would start. As it is, he sort of blends in with the other options, in which case, money does become a factor.

Conclusion

Honestly, you can make a case for any of the four starting pitchers. Weaver has the best projections. Ross has pitched the best over the whole season. Poncedeleon has had the best results of any of this group in the past month. Then there’s Wainwright, who doesn’t necessarily have anything obvious in his favor. If you go purely by projections, you got to go with Weaver. If you go development, go with Poncedeleon. If you go by performance, Ross has the stats over him.

You may disagree, but there is one thing Wainwright provides that the others cannot. It is . not necessarily a good thing. That is uncertainty. We can be reasonably sure what to expect from the other three pitchers. Wainwright’s range of outcomes, in theory, ranges from a CC Sabathia-like renaissance to something that should probably be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

I get the sense that this is Wainwright’s last stand. He might be done after this year for his career. He knows this. Optimistically for him, he has three starts left for this year to prove he belongs on a playoff rotation. Wainwright is not the clear best option by the stats. There is no clear best option. Wainwright is as good of a choice as any of them. I also believe that Wainwright will near immediately show whether he has “it” or not. The Wainwright of earlier this year is not a particularly hard pitcher to grade. He’s not sneaky bad. We’ll know. And in that scenario, the Cardinals say “We gave it a shot.” I don’t see the harm in giving him a shot. Not when the other options aren’t better.