Adam Wainwright: NL Starting Pitcher

Adam Wainwright

The Cardinals’ success without Adam Wainwright last season was a minor miracle. Chris Carpenter had a fantastic season at the top of the rotation and Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse did enough in the middle to make up for the fact that they struggled to find a capable back end of the rotation until the trade deadline acquisition of Edwin Jackson.

So far this season, Jackson is gone, Carpenter has yet to make his debut, and Wainwright isn’t exactly leading the team into the fields of glory. Lance Lynn has been a pleasant surprise and Jake Westbrook has already nearly equaled his 2011 WAR total, but it’s hard to blame Cardinal fans — to say nothing of fantasy owners — for wondering just when the pre-surgery Wainwright will show up.

Pieces of Wainwright’s profile are immensely positive. His SwStrk is right at his career average, he’s getting opposing hitters to swing at just under a third of his pitches out of the zone — a rate solidly above league average — and he’s striking out better than a batter per inning and 23 percent of the hitters he has faced so far. If the hitters put balls in play, Waino is inducing groundballs at a 54 percent rate, which is especially critical given his 25 percent HR/FB rate.

Therein begins Wainwright’s trouble and part of the reason his FIP is still above 4.00 when his xFIP is below 3.00. He’s walking a few more hitters than one might hope — 2.84 per nine isn’t unbearably high — and while he’s not yet quite in Jonathan Sanchez’s 7.82 per nine neighborhood yet, the extra base runners are making his 1.66 HR/9 even worse than it already is.

Normally I’m worried about pitchers who give up a lot of home runs before the summer starts since we know that warm weather makes balls fly further, but Wainwright could start pitching outside the International Space Station and he’d probably give up fewer home runs than he is now. There’s just no way he continues to get beat down this way. I think it’s more than possible that Wainwright isn’t completely comfortable in his return from surgery yet, something that will come with time, but for which no specific timetable could possibly exist.

Looking at his base splits, I believe Wainwright’s problems right now are coming from something in his set position rather than the windup. With the bases clear, Wainwright is holding opposing hitters to a .281/.319/.449 line, which isn’t great, but it’s a good sight better than the .328/.400/.607 line he allows with runners on base generally or the .360/.385/.640 line he allows with a runner on first. The simple solution here is for Wainwright to not allow base runners — stunning, I know — but failing that, Wainwright needs to trust his arm coming out of the set, which will hopefully produce more groundballs than high, deep flyballs.

I don’t love Wainwright’s 20 percent line drive rate, but even despite that and his implausibly high home run rate, I rate him either a hold or a buy low. The home runs will normalize, even if they normalize at a rate above his career mark, a 15-17 percent drop in his HR/FB rate wouldn’t surprise me a bit. His BABIP should drop a bit, .352 is just too far above his .290 career rate to stay, though the extent to which it drops will largely be a function of whether he can get his line drive rate under control. The walks don’t trouble me much, largely because his rate was far better before he walked five Braves in 4.1 innings, and the strikeouts should stay as well, especially as he gets the feel for his cut fastball back.

Another few weeks worth of starts will provide an even better sense of where Wainwright is in his comeback, but I see incremental improvement in his numbers from start to start and I don’t see any reason to believe that won’t continue. As much as I’d love to break out my haruspex hat and tell you exactly when the Waino of old will return, there are just too many things we don’t know about how he’s feeling. That said, I expect him to be close to form by the All-Star break, giving owners a solid half-season of production they can get on the cheap.

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Dan enjoys black tea, imperial IPAs, and any competition that can be loosely judged a sport. Follow him on Twitter.

15 Responses to “Adam Wainwright: NL Starting Pitcher”

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  1. murphym45 says:

    Great article on Wainwright. I think that he is definitely a buy low candidate. Even if his HR/FB and BABIP numbers don’t come all the way down to his career averages, they’re bound to start dropping. In addition, both his xFIP and SIERA rank in the top-10 among qualified starters.
    There’s a chance he doesn’t return to form for another month or two, but look at his upcoming schedule (assuming the StL rotation stays intact): @SF (tomorrow night), SD, PHI, @NYM, @HOU. I feel like he puts together a solid string of quality outings here and restores confidence to his owners within the next few weeks. If you think a Wainwright owner in your league has doubts about him, I think it would be smart to try to get him soon, or it might be too late.

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  2. sherlock says:

    Just claimed him off waivers. Bamm! Now I’m thinking about trading Cj Wilson and Gio González for Longoria. Thoughts?

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    • Dan Wade says:

      I am not C.J. Wilson’s biggest fan, by which I mean I think he’s grossly overrated. Losing Gonzalez would be a blow to your rotation for sure. I might wait until Longo was closer to coming back in order to maximize the value you get before giving up those pitchers.

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  3. Herbstr8t says:

    I traded Kelly Johnson for Waino before his last start and seriously considered killing myself by the third inning. I took a close look at the peripherals before I made the deal and I like what I saw. I’m still cautiously optimistic but my biggest concern is that the patented Waino curve ball didn’t have the same snap to it, at least not in his last turn v. ATL. It was kind of waffling into the zone (need to work on my curve ball adjectives, I know). Anyway, I’m really hoping that Waino is about to turn the corner!

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  4. Chicago Mark says:

    Avid FG reader but luke warm on the statistical end and downright too old to understand it just the same. HOWEVER, I see a cunundrum and wonder. Are people squaring up on his stuff more than usual (high line drive and HR rates)? The catch is, how are people squaring off better if they are also missing so much? I have no idea how to read your data. But is he getting hit harder against one pitch more than another? I heard his fastball velo was down. Could that be what is being hit harder? I’ve also heard that command/control are the last thing to get back after TJS. Could he be locating his fastball worse than norm? The breaking pitches are harder to hit generally (even when they are hanging), so maybe once that command and velo comes back we see vintage Wain. Which I believe we see sooner than later. Excellent reading as usual.

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  5. CoManager says:

    I co-manage a points league (must start 6 SP and 2 RP) with a guy who just traded Waino AND Dunn for Lance Lynn without my knowledge. I almost quit the team.

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    • jon says:

      I would have quit that is awful. I had to pry him away from his owner in a keeper league and paid a hefty price to do so: David Ortiz. Hopefully that will be worth it in the long run (deal just made this week).

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  6. hartmtown says:

    I just traded for Wainwright in an NL only league, which I’m currently leading by a bit. I gave up Edwin Jackson and Chase Headley, a bench player for me. How’d I do?

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    • Dan Wade says:

      I’m a big EJax fan, so it looks to me like you gave up a little more than I would have, but even so, that looks like a decently fair deal to me.

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  7. kris says:

    I was at Wainwright’s last start, against the Braves. He wasn’t able to throw his curve for a strike. Pretty soon the Braves figured that out, and they didn’t offer at it, with just a few exceptions. Waino didn’t last long after that… once he gets that curve going again, he’ll be “back.”

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  8. troy says:

    just got an interesting trade offer, of wainwright and A. Gonzolez for C. Hammels and J. Reddick…thinking about pulling the tirgger here.

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    • Dan Wade says:

      You’re certainly making an upside gamble. To be frank, I think you’re taking on too much risk with what you’re giving up. Even if Waino was fully healthy, I still think Hamels is the better pitcher, which means you’re banking on Gonzalez being better than Reddick by a lot if you’re looking to win the deal. See if you can get more.

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      • Troy says:

        This was his counter offer to my Volequez and Reddick for Waino and Gonzalez. I have crawford on the DL so I could afford the gamble…not to mention I Davis is killing me at first.

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  9. mattpullman says:

    Thoughts on this trade that occurred in my league last week?
    (League includes MI and CI as positions, as well as a UTIL and 4th OF spot)

    SP Wainwright
    RP Betancourt
    OF/1B/2B Cuddyer


    OF Heyward
    2B Kipnis

    [Subsequently picked up SP/RP Samardzija with open roster spot]

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  10. Mike says:

    I have an offer where I’d trade Brandon Morrow for Wainwright. Thoughts? At first glance it sounds like a steal (getting Wainwright), but what if Morrow’s improvements are real and Wainwright takes another year to fully recover… Thoughts are welcomed.

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