Adam Wainwright‘s last start was a match up with an historically bad offense and it was such a no brainer that he was my starting pitcher pick in “The Game” here on Fangraphs. Seven runs and 11 hits over five innings pitched versus the Pittsburgh Pirates later, I felt rather duped. And yet, I’m still bullish on Adam Wainwright.
Here’s what I know. Between 2007 and 2008, Adam Wainwright was a very good starting pitcher. Between 2009 and 2010, he was great. You wanted Adam Wainwright on your fantasy team, and you wanted him badly. I just know it.
And then we know about elbow surgery.
But despite it being a particularly damning diagnosis in the short term, Tommy John surgery isn’t quite as terrifying as it used to be since we’ve seen so many pitchers return to have successful post-surgery careers. Often times, we see pitchers simply scraping off the rust after spending the better part of a year recovering and rehabbing and not throwing baseballs. But their skills often return.
With Wainwright, we’re probably seeing a lot of that rust, but I think we’re also seeing some good old fashioned rotten luck.
So let’s start with the bad. Wainwright has given up 102 hits over 96.2 innings pitched, the first time since 2007 that he’s surrendering more than a hit per inning. He’s given up ten home runs, putting him on pace to set a personal “high”. His ERA stands at 4.75, which would be far and away the highest of his career, and his WHIP is 1.34, the highest in four seasons. This is what you’re hoping his current owner is staring at.
The good news is, the predictors are all crying foul. Whichever you may prefer, FIP, xFIP, or SIERA – they all have him in the low to mid 3’s. Wainwright is striking out batters at a a rate right in line with his old self with a 22% strikeout rate, and he’s still got the same good control that he’s shown over the last several seasons with a walk rate below 7%. What’s killing him right now is a 66% strand rate (75.8% career), a 14.5% HR/FB rate (8.2% career), and an opponent BABIP of .326 (.292 career). These last three rates really ought to regress towards career norms, and if you believe at all the notion that he’s still getting comfortable after the long layoff, it should only contribute to that sentiment.
But there lies a gray area with Wainwright. In 2010, he threw his sinker and cut fastball almost 70% of the time, and with great results. His cutter was 10 runs above average and his sinker wasn’t far behind at 8.3. This year, he’s relied more heavily on his cutter than his sinker in terms of mix of pitches and his velocity as dropped about a full mph on his sinker, and the results have been underwhelming. Both pitches are at 3.5 runs below average. His curve ball remains an effective pitch, but one can go to the yacker only so often.
Additionally, his batted ball data is a little troubling. He’s giving up far more line drives in 2012 than we’ve seen from him in his career and it has actually earned him an expected BABIP of over .350, suggesting that his current .326 rate is actually rather gracious. Most of the damage has come against right handed batters where he’s seen his line drive rate double on curve balls thrown. This could certainly be a “feel” thing, however – but it’s tough to tease that out of the data.
My bet is that he gets his gopher balling under control and that his strand rate starts to trend towards something more league-average. If he can continue to miss bats at the same rate and induce the number of ground balls he’s generating, he’s going to be successful. And again, if you’re a believer in the post-TJ-settling-in-period, you could well have a front line starter on your hands in the second half.
This last outing against the Pirates might provide the best opportunity yet to grab Waino on the cheap. Monitor his next couple starts if your trigger finger isn’t quite itchy enough, but it won’t require much evidence for his current owners to put him on lock down, so you may want to strike while things look their worst.