Let’s start post off with a disclaimer: the Adam Wainwright rotation conversation shouldn’t be happening. On whatever level you want to choose, Adam Wainwright should not be taking the bump every five days.

On the basis of timeliness, one could cite the fact that he had to go back on the DL just days after coming off. During Sunday’s Fox Sports Midwest broadcast, Dan McLaughlin and Al Hrabosky highlighted how Wainwright was pitching from a different arm slot because his normal arm slot doesn’t allow him to throw without pain. If a player can’t perform to the best of his ability without hurting himself, he shouldn’t be on the field. And I’m not talking about toughing out injuries. There’s a difference between a batter playing with a sore shoulder and a pitcher not being able to throw without elbow pain.

The fact of the matter is that Wainwright’s time as an effective member of the staff has come and gone. He came into the season as the fifth best starter, and is likely already a step behind options like Jack Flaherty and the soon-to-be-activated Alex Reyes. He may even be less preferable than guys like John Gant or Austin Gomber. His time in the rotation shouldn’t be winding down. Tt should be finished.

The default option from there is, “Send him to the bullpen!” It’s a familiar step for great starters to take (see: John Smoltz, Kerry Wood, Dennis Eckersley.) And on its face, it makes a lot of sense for the organization and for Wainwright. He still feels like he can contribute, so let him do it in an environment where he doesn’t have to worry about putting the team on his back for five or more innings every five days.

However, this is a proud franchise with a realistic chance to get back to October after two empty Octobers. As we learned the past two years, the second wild card means every win counts, and every personnel decision should be made with those razor thin margins in mind. So let’s examine Wainwright’s credentials against those of his bullpen peers. Even in a Matheny bullpen, which often operates with one too many members, should Wainwright be given a spot… even in a marginal “long reliever” role?

We should start by simply defining the pool of players from which we would build the Cardinals bullpen. Here’s the list of players who’ve made a relief appearance for the Cardinals this season, subtracting John Gant and Jordan Hicks. The former is better served as a backup starter, and the latter needs more development. I’ve also added Wainwright to the pool.

cardinals bullpen
Numbers as of May 15, 2018 (FanGraphs)

Just based on that list of names, it would be pretty easy to put together a list. And based on a lot of numbers here, Wainwright is not a member of the top seven. In most cases, he’s not in the top eight.

  • 8th in strikeout percentage
  • 10th in FIP, xFIP
  • 11th in walk percentage, SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA)

That SIERA number is perhaps a bit misleading as relief pitchers tend to have lower numbers, but even based on FanGraph’s math, Wainwright would only see his SIERA score lower by 0.37 points, keeping him at 11th on the list.

So what would Wainwright need to do to break back into that group of *sigh* eight? The easiest way would be to get his strikeouts back up to his career average of 20.2 percent. That would still put him at 8th on the list, but it would certainly strengthen his case. It would be especially convincing if he could lower his walk percentage closer to his career average of 6.2 percent.

But there’s a lot of evidence to believe that he won’t, at least not based on the version of Adam Wainwright we’ve seen this year or the past few.

wainwright plate discipline
Numbers as of May 15, 2018 (FanGraphs)

As we can see by a look at Wainwright’s plate discipline numbers, almost everything is trending downward. I’m especially concerned about the O-Swing%, the overall Contact%, and the SwStr%. (For the unfamiliar those are, in order: pitches batters swing at outside the strike zone; the amount of pitches they make contact with in general; and the amount of pitches at which a batter swings and misses.)

Not only is Wainwright no longer fooling batters into swinging at pitches outside the zone – where he’s operating at a career high of 64.5 percent – he’s also getting pummeled when he comes back into the zone. A pitcher that gets hit hard will need to bank his check on craftiness. Sadly, that’s not an element of Wainwright’s game that’s present anymore. You could certainly point to this injury this year, but you’d be ignoring the fact that his O-Swing% and SwStr% were at nearly decade lows in 2017 as well.

We can also scroll down on his page and see that nearly all of his pitches have a negative weighted value this season, further answering the question, “Why aren’t batters swinging, and why are they crushing when they do?”

wainwright pitch values per 100
Numbers as of May 15, 2018 (FanGraphs)

Three of Wainwright’s five pitches are well below average, and the only one that grades out as squarely above average is his cutter. His vaunted curveball is still technically above zero, but it’s to the point where you could qualify it as average and be mostly correct. Based on how often he throws each pitch, here’s the amount of time Wainwright is serving up quality pitches vs. when he’s putting up junk.

  • Above average: 18.2% (Cutter)
  • Average: 34.7% (Curveball)
  • Below average: 46.6% (Fastball, Sinker, Changeup)

A pitcher who’s only offering one quality pitch out of every five isn’t going to strikeout a lot of batters, and he’s likely going to put a lot of them on base. And unfortunately, Adam Wainwright’s cutter, while good, has not enough to get him by without another pitch on which he can hang his hat.

This whole article is probably an exercise in futility, because let’s be honest: whenever Wainwright is healthy (normal arm slot or not), he’s going to pitch again. He’s earned enough gold stars with Matheny and the organization that it would take an emergency Mozeliak intervention, à la Jon Jay or Allen Craig, to keep Waino from taking the bump outside the bullpen.

And maybe, in this unfortunate era of Matheny roster construction, Wainwright in the bullpen wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. It would be easy to look at the above pool of names and think that if Mike is going to insist on keeping an eighth reliever, Wainwright could play out this final year in mop-up duty. That’s probably the best rationale for his staying on as an active contributor. It would certainly be the least painful solution overall… that is, if it didn’t undermine the, “proud Cardinal legend going out on top,” narrative the Cardinals seem hell-bent on writing.

But no amount of trips to the disabled list can buy them enough time, and no role change can change the facts. Because the time is quickly coming – if it hasn’t come already – when everyone involved will have to realize that this story won’t end that way, no matter how hard anyone, especially Wainwright, tries.

One thought on “So, about Adam Wainwright and the Bullpen…

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