For one night in September, we saw Adam Wainwright.
You’ll remember him.
Not the weak-armed slop baller who has lobbed 86 mph batting practice fastballs all season. Not the pitcher whose climbing walk rate has threatened to catch his dwindling strikeout rate. Not the starter who entered the game on Monday as inarguably the worst in the National League.
No, we’re talking about Adam Wainwright, the happy-go-lucky, aw-shucks, beloved Cardinals’ starting pitcher who has probably earned more knee buckles than any other pitcher in MLB history. Unofficially, of course.
Just turned 42-year-old Adam Wainwright had one more Adam Wainwright start left in him. He went seven shutout innings, striking out three while walking two and giving up just four hits. It wasn’t the best start of his career, but it was his best start of the season and enough to get him his highly anticipated but long-delayed 200th win.
Congrats, Waino! Way to gut it out and achieve something that clearly meant so much to you, your family, and your teammates.
Other writers on other sites will wax poetic about Wainwright and history, his place in Cardinals’ lore, and the incredibly generous, compassionate, and charismatic person that he is. Did you all see the pictures of Waino’s son poking his head out from underneath the table skirt during his press conference? That was so on-brand. Unscripted and completely perfect.
Others will use this moment as a chance to bemoan how the game has changed and decry the loss of the workhorse, bulldog starter, who takes the mound and doesn’t leave it until his arm falls off. I saw several commenters asking on the internet if Wainwright will be baseball’s last 200-game winner.
Wainwright deserves every kind word written about him. Undoubtedly.
And, yes, he might be one of the last old-school style starters who stayed in (or was left in) games long enough to secure an official scorer’s decision.
Today, with plenty of those things already out there for you to consume, I thought I would take a different approach for my Wainwright retrospective. I’m going to ask… what if? What if a few things had gone differently for Wainwright during his career? What difference would that have made in his career and the way his career is viewed?
I don’t do this to take away from what he is or what he’s accomplished. I’m going to talk about some of the low points of his career, but not in an attempt to overshadow the many highs.
Instead, I think that answering some of “what ifs” about Wainwright’s career will help illustrate just how good he has been and just how close his talent level was to some of the game’s all-time greats.
Before we get to the what-ifs, let’s start with the what-ares.
In 18 MLB seasons and 2668.1 innings, Wainwright has a career 3.53 ERA and a 3.54 FIP. He has 2200 strikeouts to 736 BBs. 200 wins to 128 losses in 478 games and 411 starts.
By Fangraphs, that’s worth 47.5 fWAR. At Baseball Reference, he’s at just 40.6. They do give him another 4.3 WAR as a hitter in 846 career plate appearances.
That 47.5 fWAR ranks 105th all-time, placing him solidly in the “Hall of Great” category. Other names that you would know around him include Jamie Moyer (48 fWAR), Orel Hershiser (48 fWAR), Cliff Lee (48.2) and Tim Hudson (49). Just below him is Chris Sale (47.3), Kevin Millwood (46.5) and Jon Lester (46.2).
Considering those names, it’s hard to make any real case that Wainwright belongs in the Hall of Fame. By fWAR, which is not the only stat to consider here, we start to see elected Hall of Famers in the 55 fWAR range. Sandy Koufax (54.6) and Whitey Ford (54.9) form a pretty hard floor. There are multiple pitchers above them who didn’t get much HOF consideration, including Brett Saberhagen, and David Cone, who got Jim Edmonds-ed on his first ballot.
Even 60+ fWAR doesn’t guarantee entry into the Hall. Andy Pettitte has 68.2 fWAR and 256 wins. He also has PED associations. Kevin Brown has 76.5 fWAR. I think he gets in had he pitched in a different era.
So, Wainwright is probably at least 8-10 fWAR short of the Hall and probably needs a few other things to kick him over the top. What if he had those fWAR wins? And awards as kickers? Let’s speculate!
What if the Braves/Cardinals had been more aggressive with Wainwright’s development?
Wainwright came up in an era where young pitching was simply not prioritized. That was compounded by only rudimentary knowledge of league-adjusted stats and minor league performance translations by MLB front offices. Wainwright spent a full season at each level in the minors. He made 11 starts in as an 18-year-old in the rookie league, despite having a 2.35 ERA. The next season, he got 164.2 innings in A ball with 28 starts and a 3.77 ERA. His K/9 was 10.1. His BB/9 was 2.6. 164 innings. At age 19 years old. In A ball. Over a full season. Knowing what we know now about pitcher development, holding Wainwright at that level and letting him throw that many innings is just absurd.
It’s an absurdity that only continued. Waino spent his entire age-20 season in A+. Dominating. And the next year in AA. Dominating. An injury – not surprising considering his 537+ innings pitched in the minors to this point – derailed his ’04 season with the Cardinals in AAA. So, Jocketty and company sent him back to Memphis for 182 innings the next season.
As if that much developmental time wasn’t enough, the Cardinals stuck Wainwright in the bullpen for the entire ’06 season. There he earned 1.2 fWAR in 75 relief innings and had an incredible moment against Carlos Beltran. But he was 25 years old before he made his first MLB start and he already had 861 professional innings thrown.
By today’s promotion standards, we could conservatively get Wainwright to the majors at the start of the 2004 season, giving him 4 full minor league seasons instead of 6.
What happens to Wainwright’s stats if we add two more full seasons as a starter to the beginning of his career? He had 3.7 fWAR in 202 innings in ’07. He had 1.1 fWAR in 77 innings in ’05-’06. That’s a 3.2 fWAR rate over 180 innings. Let’s drop that a little because of his age and make some educated guesses about his production in these imaginary seasons.
’04 – 150 IPs, 2.4 fWAR
’05 – 175 IPs, 3.0 fWAR
’06 – 200 IPs, 3.6 fWAR
Add that to Wainwright’s 47.5 fWAR while subtracting his 1.2 relief WAR and we get to 55.3. Just ahead of Koufax and Ford.
What if Wainwright had won more awards? (A.k.a. what if Clayton Kershaw didn’t exist?)
Another way to elevate Wainwright’s career value is to give him more awards and recognitions. Considering his career, he has a surprisingly low amount of season-long hardware on his mantle. Here are his major awards:
Gold Gloves – 2009, 2013
Silver Slugger – 2017
Roberto Clemente – 2020
That’s it. And it’s one of the reasons why Wainwright doesn’t rank all that high in the JAWS or Hall of Fame monitors on Baseball Reference.
Wainwright, though, was very close to winning multiple Cy Youngs.
2009 – 3rd behind Tim Lincecum and Chris Carpenter
2010 – 2nd behind Roy Halladay
2013 – 2nd behind Clayton Kershaw
2014 – 3rd behind Clayton Kershaw and Johnny Cueto
Now, Wainwright wasn’t robbed in any of these seasons. Lincecum, Carpenter, and Kershaw were all clearly ahead of Wainwright by a variety of performance metrics. That means we have to do something a little absurd to get him more hardware: erase Clayton Kershaw from the record.
Kershaw is probably going to finish his career with over 80 fWAR. He’s won three Cy Youngs and should probably have a few more. He is without question one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the game. His existence probably cost Waino two Cy Youngs.
If we remove him from the picture, Wainwright wins the award in 2013.
In ’14, Wainwright finished behind Cueto in the voting. However, if Kershaw didn’t exist, I think Waino probably pulls this one out as well. Cueto finished half a win behind Waino in fWAR despite having more innings. Sabermetric voters likely would have flipped from Kershaw to Waino. Plus, Wainwright would have been the defending winner and that would have netted him some of the old-school, non-stats-based voters.
What if Waino had won two Cy Youngs instead of none? I’m not sure it would be enough to get him into the Hall. Saberhagen and Johan Santana both have two wins and aren’t in. It would take something else, too. Like…
What if Wainwright had stayed healthier? (And COVID had not happened?)
Wainwright has two issues that are keeping him out of the hall. First, while he was a great pitcher, he was only rarely a truly dominant starter. You can see that if you look through his Cy Young voting. He has just one season at 6.2 fWAR and only two seasons over 5.0. That’s great. But it’s well below guys like Halladay and Kershaw.
So, how does a pitcher who was regularly great but rarely truly dominant end up making the Hall? There’s really only one path and that’s his second problem: health A pitcher can make up for a lack of elite dominance through excessive longevity. And while Wainwright had pitched a long time, he also missed quite a bit of in-his-prime innings.
Several lost or shortened seasons stand out:
2008 – only 132 innings pitched and 2.4 fWAR despite a 3.20 ERA
2011 – 0 innings pitched following two 5.0+ fWAR seasons
2015 – 28 innings pitched following 6.2 and 4.9 fWAR seasons
2016 – 4.62 ERA in his recovery year following his ’15 injury
2017 – 123 injury-fueled innings pitched, a 5.11 ERA and only 1.4 fWAR
2018 – 40 innings pitched
Then there is 2020. Wainwright was healthy and productive that season, bouncing back from his mid-thirties downturn. He had 1.0 fWAR in 65 innings pitched. COVID stole two-thirds of a season from him and he probably lost around 2.0 fWAR due to the shutdown.
It’s not realistic to eliminate all of these injuries but there are two that I think stand out plus COVID:
* What if Wainwright had not put so many miles on his arm in the low minors? Would that have allowed him to avoid Tommy John surgery that cost him all of his age-29 2011 season? Maybe! If we average Wainwright’s fWAR production and innings in ’10 and ’12, we can estimate what he would have done in ’11: 215 innings pitched, 4.5 fWAR.
* What if Wainwright had not torn his Achilles in ’15 while batting? That was a total fluke injury that cost him a full season of production and probably bled over into his atypical performance the next year. In ’14, Wainwright produced 4.9 fWAR in 227 innings. In ’16 he wasn’t sharp at all, but did produce 2.8 fWAR in 198 innings. Let’s assume a bit of a drop-off in ’15 by simply averaging ’14 and ’16 together. We’ll also leave in his 28 innings thrown before his Achilles injury. We can take all of that and divide it by 32 starts to get a lost season. That adds 3.9 fWAR to his totals. More if we decided to change ‘16, too. (We won’t.)
And 2020? Let’s do the same thing with ’19 and ’21. That adds 3.1 fWAR, for a net of 2.1 added to 2020 for the 2/3rds of a season lost.
Eliminating three lost seasons from Wainwright’s record — one of which wasn’t his fault — and adding that production back in nets Wainwright an additional 10.5 fWAR, bringing him to 58 fWAR total. That’s right on the edge of the Hall of Fame.
What ifs are just that: what if?
What if Wainwright had just a bit more juice on his fastball? Improve his K rate a little and his ERA/FIPs would have dropped. His fWAR would have risen. His chances at awards would have improved.
What if Wainwright’s age 33-36 seasons had looked more like his age 37-40 season?
What if, what if, what if?
I could list another four or five other what-ifs with Waino that would have made a difference in his career. But I could do the same for pretty much every other pitcher — even Hall of Famers.
What if Randy Johnson had developed his control earlier?
What if Greg Maddux had never been a Cub?
What if Chris Carpenter had been drafted by the Redbirds?
Careers in professional sports are all made up of these couldas, shouldas, and dids. In Waino’s case, yes, if a few things had gone differently, he could have reached the bottom edge of the Hall of Fame. Add in a Cy Young or two. Return a few lost seasons and assume the best from him. Chart a smoother aging curve and a smarter developmental process.
If we try hard, we can imagine a world where Wainwright gets to 55 fWAR instead of 47.5 and 1-2 Cy Youngs. Still, I am not sure even those fantasies are enough to get him into the Hall. Not with Kershaw, Scherzer, Verlander, Halladay and a few other truly elite arms around his era.
At the end of it all, I just don’t think that Wainwright was a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher. Hall of Fame personality? Yes! Hall of Fame class? Certainly. Hall of Fame humility? Definitely. But Hall of Fame arm talent? I just don’t think so.
Yes, he had one truly elite pitch. He’s earned his Uncle Charlie nickname. But it takes two or three truly elite qualities to make a pitcher into an all-time great. Wainwright had great stuff but he was no Martinez. He had great control and command but he was no Maddux. He had great moments but he was no Gibson. He had great arm talent but he was no Johnson. I could go on.
And, now, he has a great total of MLB wins.
Wainwright fits well in the Hall of Great, if such a museum existed. And that’s no slight on his exceptional career.
Wainwright will get some Hall of Fame votes. He’ll probably hang around the ballot for a little while. He’s popular and well-known around the league. Transitioning into the media should keep his exposure up, too. Maybe down the road he’ll get some consideration by the Veterans Committees and other alternative entry points once the history has had a chance to settle and we learn more about how pitching changes in the years to come.
But there is no reason to try to make Wainwright into more than he was. There’s no reason to explain some things away or force accommodations onto his career.
Wainwright is a beloved Cardinal, a great person, and a great pitcher. He’s a Cardinals Hall of Famer and one of the best pitchers in franchise history. He’ll always be one of my favorites. He was great. That’s enough for me.