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.