There has been many bytes transmitted across the internet–perhaps the modern day equivalent of ink spilled–discussing the start that Adam Wainwright has had to the 2016 season. Many are questioning his place with the team and whether he can still be considered the team’s ace.
If an ace is the best pitcher in your rotation, Wainwright fits the definition. If an ace is one of the best 10 starting pitchers in the league, he still qualifies (10th in ERA+ among starting pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched since 2013). He had a career year in his last full season on the mound (153 ERA+ in 2014) and was off to the best start of his career in 2015 before tearing his Achilles tendon in his fourth start of the season.
So in my opinion, Wainwright is still an ace and still one of the league’s best pitchers. He just hasn’t gotten off to a good start this season and that has people nervous about the 34-year-old Wainwright. So nervous that I even read an article today that suggested that Wainwright should be permanently moved to the bullpen if top prospect Alex Reyes is called up this summer. I found the suggestion pretty laughable.
To me, I think most people are forgetting the fact that Wainwright didn’t pitch very much last year. The best comparison to what we should have expected from him to start the season seems like it should be the 2012 season. That was his return after missing the 2011 season following Tommy John surgery. How does his 2016 start stack up to 2012?
First 8 starts of 2012: 5.77 ERA, 43.2 IP, 1.53 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9
First 8 starts of 2016: 6.80 ERA, 45.0 IP, 1.60 WHIP, 5.2 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9
The comparison results in a mixed bag. His ERA and WHIP are higher in 2016, but his walk rate and home run rate are improved. But the bottom line has been the same: Command.
In the start of the 2012 season, Wainwright was searching for touch on his pitches. Even though it wasn’t his arm injured in 2015, he still couldn’t throw off a mound for most of the year. So he is still looking for that touch. He probably should have thrown more than 15 innings in spring training to ensure he was closer to finding that touch when the real games began. In that regard, the deck was stacked towards struggling to start the season.
But those numbers of Wainwright’s this year are improving. Even with the pounding he took against the Angels, his May numbers look better. Outside of ERA, they look markedly better.
April 2016: 7.16 ERA, 27.2 IP, 1.70 WHIP, 4.6 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9
May 2016: 6.23 ERA, 17.1 IP, 1.44 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 1.1 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9
Guys are still pounding his mistakes, but he is making fewer of them. He’s walking 2.5 fewer batters per nine while striking out 1.6 more. So he’s able to throw strikes when he needs them with more regularity.
And, while I discount the ability of BABIP to tell us much when comparing one player to another, I still think it has some value when comparing a player to himself. Wainwright had a .379 BABIP in May and has a .353 for the season (likely deflated a bit courtesy of those extra home runs he allowed). For Wainwright’s career his BABIP is .298. For 2014, his last full season of pitching, it was .270.
While his performance may be in doubt, there is no doubt of Wainwright’s importance to the pitching staff. Whether you think he is or not, he is supposed to be the ace. The guy who steps up to stop a losing streak.
He and Mike Leake are supposed to be the veteran pitchers who lead this staff. In April, they both struggled. The Cardinals went 3-7 in games started by Wainwright and Leake.
So far in May, the Cardinals are 6-0 in games started by Wainwright and Leake. That’s been a big difference. Leake has figured it out and pitched superbly his last two times on the mound. Wainwright still has work to do, but there is reason to be optimistic in his numbers.
My conclusion is that time and innings are what Wainwright needs right now. And he’s going to get it.