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Wainwright’s “Wainwright”

Wainwright threw a “Wainwright” on Wednesday. Was that the best start of his career?

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

On Wednesday, August 11, Adam Wainwright had one of the best starts that we have seen this season. Social media monikered it a “Maddux”, presumably based on Braves’ legend Greg Maddux, who was known for his ability to go deep into games with low pitch counts.

I’m not sure if there is an official definition in play here or not, but for our purposes, I’m going to follow Jeff Jones’ lead. He defines a Maddux as a complete game shutout with less than 100 pitches.

Before Wednesday’s game, the last Cardinal to throw a Maddux was Chris Carpenter back in 2011.

Wainwright’s start is extremely unique in multiple ways.

First, Gregg Maddux’s final complete game shutout came in his age-38 season. Wainwright? He’s currently 39. He turns 40 on August 30th.

Second, Wainwright didn’t just come in under 100 pitches. He finished at 88 pitches. In 9 innings. That’s less than 10 pitches per inning. I’m sure there is some way to sort shutouts thrown by pitch count but I don’t know what it is. Let’s just all agree that this was extremely rare.

Carpenter’s “Maddux” came in a vital September start against the Brewers. He went 9 innings with 5 strikeouts and 2 walks on four hits. He had 97 pitches.

Third, Wainwright’s success in that game wasn’t limited to the mound. He also had two hits on the day, a feat that had Jeff Jones wondering if it needed a new name.

Here’s where I just point you to Jeff’s terrific article on the subject, where he covers Wainwright’s quotes and some dancing, and the invention of something that will now be called the “Wainwright”.

Let it be so decreed!

There’s no need for me to re-write what Jeff already covered. Give him those well-deserved clicks if you want to know more. Instead, we can take the rarity of Wainwright’s performance on Wednesday a step further.

Was it the best start of his career?

I know, I know, you want to dismiss the thought outright. After all, remember he threw that no-hitter back in… oh, wait, he hasn’t thrown a no-hitter, has he?

Ok, ok, but there was that shutout start in the World Series, right? Hmmm… no, can’t be. He was a reliever in 2006 and he missed 2011…

His most memorable moment was probably his strikeout of Carlos Beltran to clinch the NLCS in ’06. He did that as a reliever.

Sure, he’s been very good in the postseason as a starter. He has a complete game in the playoffs – in the 2013 Divisional Series against the Pirates. He gave up just 1 run that game on 8 hits. It’s a good outing, very Wainwright-like, and he was exceptional that whole series. But it’s just hard for me to call that the best start of his career.

No, we’re going to have to find that in the regular season.

I went to Adam Wainwright’s game logs per season and sorted them by Game Score. I’m not a huge fan of Game Score as a stat, but for something like this, it’s kind of fun. It’s a Bill James stat that starts each starter with a score of 50 and then adds and subtracts value based on outs made, innings pitches, strikeouts, walks, etc.

A Game Score over 75 is going to be pretty darn good. 80’ish is exceptional. 90’ish is near no-hitter territory. 100+ requires something extraordinary – a perfect game or a shutout with big strikeout totals. Kerry Wood’s one-hitter, 20-K start against the Astros is the highest 9-inning game score in baseball history at 105.

Sorting by Game Score helps narrow down Wainwrights’ 349 career starts into a manageable number of games to consider as his best.

Let’s start with 2021. His start on Wednesday night ranks as the best of his season by Game Score. It lands at a 90 with 9 IPS, 7 K, 0 ER, 0 BBs, and just 2 hits allowed. Unfortunately, pitch count doesn’t factor into James’ equation, so we’ll have to decide how many bonus points we want to add to that for coming in under 10 pitches per inning.

That’s not Wainwright’s only terrific start of the year. Back in May, he threw an 8-inning one-hitter on 101 pitches. That one landed at an 86 – a very high score for a non-nine inning game.

Wainwright’s two gems this season far outstrip anything he’s done in recent years. In 2020, his best game was a 78. It was a 79 in 2019.

We have to go back to 2016 to find another start that scored above an 80. On July 16, 2016, Wainwright went 9 innings, allowing 0 ERs, while striking out 5. He allowed three hits and two walks. That took him 120 pitches.

That’s a good start. It’s not better than what he did Wednesday. Further back we go!

And here we have our first challenger: May 20, 2014.

At home against the Diamondbacks, Waino threw a one-hitter. He struck out 9 and walked no one on 115 pitches. The one hit was a double by, you guessed it, current Cardinal first baseman, Paul Goldschmidt. His game score was an impressive 94.

He had two other shutouts and five complete games that season. He had 15 starts with a game score of 70 or higher. And he didn’t win the Cy Young.

The season before, 2013, Wainwright had a 91 GS. That came on a four-hit shutout with 12 K’s and no walks. That took him 115 pitches. He also had an 89 with a 9-inning 2-hitter. He allowed a walk that day and struck out just 7 on 120 pitches.

He had four other starts – two each in 2010 and 2012 – at 90 or just below. All include a walk and at least 4 hits. He went over 100 pitches in each one. The lowest was 103.

That’s an incredible collection of starting brilliance!

Which start is the best, though?

I think it depends on how much weight we want to place on the pitch count. James didn’t include pitches thrown in his original formula and I understand why. In a system that assigns just a +1 value to a strikeout – a plate appearance that results in no balls in play – it would be nigh impossible to give value to pitch counts. As I said, game score is a flawed stat.

In most starts, it’s just fine to ignore pitch count. What’s the value difference between 100 pitches and 105? It’s negligible at best. After all, should Kerry Wood lose points because his 20 strike-out performance required 122 pitches?

Maybe he should. As impressive as 20 K’s is, Wainwright faced just one fewer batter on Wednesday – 28 instead of 29 – and he got off the mound at the end of the game with 34 fewer pitches.

That’s 34 fewer chances for something bad to happen.

For Wainwright, averaging under 10 pitches per innings that day, that’s 3 more innings worth of pitches. James does add value – quite a lot of value – for completing innings.

We are celebrating this start as a “Maddux” because we do assign value to pitcher efficiency. It’s the extreme nature of the performance that captures our attention. Wainwright’s 88-pitch shutout is about as extreme as it gets in terms of pitcher efficiency in the modern era of baseball.

I think we can narrow this debate down to two of Wainwright’s starts. Which start is better:

A 32-year-old throwing a 9-inning shutout on 1 hit, with 9 strikeouts on 115 pitches.

Or a 39-year-old throwing a 9-inning shutout on 2 hits, with 7 strikeouts on 88 pitches.

There are a few other choices, but they involve considerably more walks or hits.

Personally, I won’t argue with anyone who says that his 2014 one-hitter is his best start when evaluated by typical counting numbers. It clearly is.

Do one more hit and 2 more strikeouts weigh more in terms of impressiveness or “best-ness” than 27 fewer pitches thrown? At age 39?

I don’t really think they do.

39-year-olds don’t throw complete game shutout 2-hitters.

No one throws that shutout on just 88 pitches.

Except maybe Greg Maddux. At a younger age. And despite being one of the best pitchers of all time, he didn’t do what Wainwright did on Wednesday.

That’s why Wednesday’s “Maddux” isn’t a “Maddux”. It’s a “Wainwright”. And Wainwright has only had a “Wainwright” once. So, that’s has to be his best start, doesn’t it?