A once-dominant ace reaches his mid-30s. A season or two get lost to injury. Then ineffectiveness sets in. A few miles per hour fall on the fastball. The one-time signature pitch just isn’t getting the results it used to. That big contract that once looked like a bargain causes people to wonder when it will end so the money can go to a better use.
Then, that bad season happens. The stuff was slipping before, but he was getting by. Still average. But that bad season puts him in a different light. The ERA around five. The peripherals not much better. Heading into spring the next season, there are those who talk about the bullpen, about retirement, about stepping aside to let the younger, better versions of themselves take over.
That’s Adam Wainwright right now.
He said he gets “fired up’’ by those who think he is done.
“I know if I’m healthy, I am able to pitch at any level,” he said. “I know I can figure it out and compete and pitch. We’ll just have to see at the end.
“Now it’s just a matter of getting my pitches to work. There is no more worrying about velocity,” he added. “I’ll be able to apply these new things that I am learning.
“I’m good at the spot that I am at. Let the young guys take over, and I will float in the back and do my thing. It’s not about [innings] seven, eight and nine anymore, and that’s good.’’
That’s not Adam Wainwright right now. Those quotes are from CC Sabathia heading into the 2016 season. Sabathia missed most of 2014 with a degenerative knee condition. He came forward about an alcohol problem at the end of a rough 2015 season. Sabathia recovered on and off the field.
Not much was expected of Sabathia heading into that 2016 season. He was projected for 1.4 WAR in 133 innings for his age-34 season. Adam Wainwright is projected for 2.0 WAR in 142 innings this year for his age-35 season. Sabathia beat his projections in 2016, pitching 179.2 innings with a 3.91 ERA and 4.28 FIP and was worth 2.6 fWAR. Then, he did it again last year, pitching 148.2 innings and putting up 1.9 fWAR, and a win more than that at Baseball-Reference.
Everybody thought Sabathia was done. He wasn’t. Everybody seems to think Wainwright is done. We just don’t know. We know about the velocity drop in the second half of last season. The curve wasn’t working. The pitch tunneling metrics don’t think highly of him, either. Wainwright could not get outs in the second half. If that carries over, Wainwright probably is done.
Flipping things around, Wainwright actually pitched well in the first half of last season. He had a 21% strikeout rate and an 8% walk rate. He was giving up under a home run per nine innings. His FIP was 3.81 and he was on pace for a 3+ season. That performance was masked by bad luck as his 5.20 ERA was poor.* Wainwright had a ridiculously high .347 BABIP and a very low 67.4% left-on-base percentage.
*I realize some take issue with the term bad luck. Some of the effect isn’t luck at all. Some of it is the defense not coming through. A defense not coming through is bad luck for a pitcher. Some of the effect is batted balls going five feet to the right or left of a fielder or dropping in between the outfield and the infield. If most batted balls hit a certain way turn into outs, but Wainwright’s aren’t, that has nothing to do with Wainwright’s skill. If it isn’t skill based, I call it luck. You can call it whatever you want, but you probably shouldn’t just look at the results to draw conclusion about a pitcher’s underlying skill and abilities to get outs.
Wainwright’s FIP was considerably better than his ERA in the first half of last season. His deficit was one of the ten biggest in baseball last season. Normally, we would expect that to get better. Those 10 players, including Wainwright averaged a first half FIP of 4.14 and an ERA of 5.20. In the second half, those players had an ERA of 4.09. Weird how that works out.
One might try to argue that it wasn’t bad luck in the first half, and that Wainwright was getting hit really hard. This is incorrect. Looking at xwOBA at Statcast, we can see by exit velocity (how hard the ball was getting hit) and launch angle (if players are getting the ball in the air or hitting grounders), that Wainwright’s expected wOBA against was .317, which is roughly league-average. His actual wOBA against in the first half last season .344 and that huge gap is actually just bad luck when compared to the skills Wainwright was showing at that time.
The first half doesn’t provide cover for Wainwright’s awful second half, but we should remember that Wainwright was a very capable pitcher for much of 2017. If the Wainwright from the second half shows up at the beginning of the season, he won’t be worth a rotation spot. If the offseason gave him some time to build up some strength and get him back to where he was just one year ago today, then he’ll be a solid member of the rotation. Nobody actually knows what will happen at this point, but calls for a change in role at this point are premature.