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In Praise of Adam Wainwright’s Age-Defying Antics

The franchise icon is on a historically great (old guy) run

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Somehow, the St. Louis Cardinals are- yet again- in playoff contention. This, despite one of their most bland, disappointing seasons in recent memory. It’s the middle of September and they’re one of three teams with a 24% chance or better of earning the final wild card in the National League. Disappointing season or not, if I had told you in June or July that they’d be here, you wouldn’t have believed me. That’s doubly true if I had told you at that time that Jack Flaherty’s rehab would stall, limiting him to just three starts, and that their trade deadline acquisitions were two guys with ERAs north of 5. Paul Goldschmidt’s surge and Harrison Bader’s return have played a role in keeping the team afloat, as has valiant performances stabilizing the bullpen by T.J. McFarland and Luis Garcia. But the number one reason the Cardinals are still alive, by far, is because of a starting pitcher who is no longer in his 30s. No, the Cardinals didn’t weave Fat Guy Magic by signing Bartolo Colon. Rather, Adam Wainwright has saved their season.

That Adam Wainwright would come up big in a tough situation is hardly a surprise. Cardinal fans in particular have seen him do so time and again since 2006. What makes this especially impressive is his age. Wainwright just turned 40 at the end of August. What he’s doing is historic. I’ll elaborate shortly.

First, let’s omit the age factor and put this in league-wide context. Wainwright ended May with a 4.22 ERA and 4.54 FIP. He had a bit of a rocky, but successful, start against Cincinnati on June 3rd. He lost, but he tossed 7 innings and held the Reds to 3 runs. Since then, he has been one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball. His MLB rank among qualified starters since June 4th:

  • Wins: 13 (1st)
  • ERA: 2.18 (3rd)
  • FIP: 2.91 (7th)
  • fWAR: 3.5 (3rd)
  • IP: 123.2 (1st)
  • HR/9: 0.51 (2nd)
  • Called Strike %: 21% (1st)
  • Barrels allowed: 5% (10th)

In full disclosure, he trails in some other advanced stats like K-BB% and xFIP, and he’s been helped by his defense as much (or close to it) as anyone in the league. None of that should detract from what he has accomplished. In three months when the Cardinals were desperate for innings and positive pitching performances, Wainwright has delivered at a level near the top of the league. All by itself, that’s notable.

If you want to know how he’s doing this, VEB Writer Emeritus Ben Clemens had a fantastic write-up at FanGraphs a few weeks ago. Short answer: his sinker command has been surgical, his curveball is as good as ever, and (my words, not Ben’s) he just flat out-thinks hitters. Where it gets crazy is...

He’s 40 years old! That’s the historic part of his current run. Wainwright has made 18 consecutive starts in a single season (e.g. not spread out over the end of one year and the beginning of the next) with an ERA of 2.18. Here’s the list of pitchers since 1947 who have 18 consecutive starts, over the age of 38, with a lower ERA:

  1. Warren Spahn (1963)
  2. Rick Reuschel (1989)
  3. Bartolo Colon (2013)

That’s it. That’s the entire list. Oh, you don’t trust simple ERA? Let’s take defense out of the equation and look only at RA9 (runs allowed per 9 innings). After all, offical scorers in 1947 probably saw the game differently than those in 1980 or 1993 or 2021. Here’s the list of starters with 18 consecutive starts and a better RA9 than Wainwright:

  1. Warren Spahn (1963)

How about consistency and dominance? Sure, you can keep runs off the board- even over 18 games- but sometimes guys get lucky. We can use something like Game Score, which measures strikeouts, walks, durability, and other items. If we look at average Game Score over an 18-game span for the old folks, the list better than Wainwright’s 64 is:

  1. Randy Johnson (2002)
  2. Warren Spahn (1963)

Again... that’s it. Maybe WPA (Win Probability Added) is more your jam. After all, WPA- while hardly predictive- tracks how much a player impacts each game on a play by play basis. Here’s the list of players age 38 and over, better than Wainwright’s 18-game stretch of 2.9 WPA:

  1. Warren Spahn (1963)
  2. Randy Johnson (2002)
  3. Jamie Moyer (2001)

Even if we include the early part of the season when he was merely meh, Wainwright’s season is still noteworthy in the annals of Old Guys Doing Stuff™ (age 38 and older since 1947). His 2.89 starting pitcher ERA is the 12th best Old Guy ERA in the modern era.

All of which is to say that Adam Wainwright has found a way to continue giving us all joy as a Cardinal, even as he approaches an AARP membership. It’s not hyperbole to suggest he saved their 2021 season.