Adam Wainwright has been an unlucky dude over the last couple of years. After getting off to a hot start in 2015, he suffered a season-ending achilles injury on April 26th. He went into the 2016 season as an obvious comeback player of the year candidate. Wainwright responded with arguably his worst season as a full-time major leaguer. He posted his highest walk rate since his first season as a starter and posted a HR/9 over 1.00 for the first time in his career.
He picked up right where he left off in 2016 this year, posting a 6.37 ERA through May 9th. Some wondered whether Wainwright, who will turn 36 by the end of the year, had anything left in the tank.
It’d be easy to point to how many runs the right-hander was giving up in order to justify going in another direction. But if you took his ERA out of the picture, the numbers suggest Wainwright is not much different of a pitcher than he was in his late twenties.
Since the beginning of the 2016 season, Wainwright has the 6th highest batting average on balls in play (.334) among starters with over 150 innings pitched according to Fangraphs. He posted a BABIP of .330 in 2016, which was 26 points higher than any other single season for him. His BABIP is .346 so far in 2017.
The high BABIP cannot be attributed to a rise in hard contact rate. His 29.7% hard contact rate is not much higher than his 26.9% career rate, and his soft contact rate is actually lower than his career average, which are 20.3% and 17.9% respectively.
While much of his BABIP misfortunes can simply be attributed to bad luck, the St. Louis Cardinals have rolled out uncharacteristically bad defenses over the past couple of season. They ranked 24th in UZR in 2016 and rank 28th so far in 2017. A bad team defense hurts a contact pitcher like Wainwright more than it hurts a strikeout pitcher who doesn’t allow as many balls in play.
He allowed the highest HR/FB rate of his career in 2016 at 11.8 percent. This lead directly to an increase in home runs. He allowed exactly a home run for every nine innings pitched, his next highest single season total was 0.82 way back in 2008. There is nothing his plate discipline profile that suggests he was pitching much different than normal to cause an increase in home runs. His HR/9 has fallen to 0.58 in 2017, much more in line with his career numbers.
Wainwright doesn’t seem to be losing anything physically either, despite entering what we assume is the twilight of his career. His fastball velocity is on par with his career averages. He is throwing his fastball more than at any point in his career, cutting back on the use of his cutter.
He is throwing more balls out of the zone than any other single season in his career. This has lead to a career high walk rate of 8.5%. It remains to be seen of this a strategy in order to induce more strikeouts rather than rely on the Cardinals’ shaky defense. It is hard to imagine Wainwright losing his feel for the strike zone this late in his career.
Although he posted an ERA of 4.88 from the beginning of the 2016 season up until May 9th of this season, he FIP remained under 4.00 at 3.92, suggesting he was nowhere near as bad as that year and a months worth of baseball. Which is why the Cardinals have stuck with him.
And it has payed off over the last month. The Cardinals have won each of his past four starts. He has allowed only one earned run over that period. His FIP of 2.60 suggests this is not a stretch of good fortune. He has brought his FIP on the season down to 3.30 and his strikeout rate up to 20 percent, its highest level since the 2013 season.
Oh, and he is 6th on the Cardinals in offensive wins above replacement according to Fangraphs due almost entirely to home runs hit off of Wily Peralta and Brandon McCarthy.
If he can manage his walk rate and his BABIP regresses towards the mean like it should, he will once again post ace-like numbers atop the Cardinals’ starting rotation. Don't give up on Adam Wainwright any time soon.