Adam Wainwright is a central part of our shared experience as St. Louis Cardinals fans. He and Yadier Molina are the two most tenured members of the team by nearly six years. There is something comforting about Adam Wainwright on the mound, even when he’s bad. But I like it better when he’s good.
Tonight, Adam Wainwright made his first start for the Cardinals since May 13, a lackluster and whimpering outing against the San Diego Padres. While Wainwright’s starts this season before heading to the 60-day Disabled List were characterized by velocity drops and poor control, he pitched well in rehabilitation starts. But he did this against minor league teams. The Pittsburgh Pirates may not have a dominant lineup, but they do have a MLB lineup.
The first pitch of Adam Wainwright’s latest run with the big league club was a 90 MPH sinking fastball. Wainwright, even at his peak, was never a flamethrower, and while 90 may have been disappointing at one point in his career, it is better than what he was throwing in early 2018. If he has the curve, Wainwright doesn’t need high velocity. And later in the at-bat, after consecutive foul balls, Adam Frazier struck out swinging on a curve. Was it “peak” Wainwright curve? No, because peak Wainwright curve puts the Cardinals in The World Dang Series by sitting down one of the best hitters in baseball, but was it the next tier? Sure. It was really good.
The next batter, Starling Marte, grounded out to the shortstop, and Wainwright raised his peak velocity to 92. He threw a first-pitch ball, which was slightly concerning given his control issues earlier this season, but it was nothing too out of the ordinary. I’m not expecting perfect control. Accurately throwing a pitch is really hard.
Josh Bell had the inning’s best plate appearance by a mile, watching three balls and fouling off a pair of pitches, eventually singling on the inning’s seventh pitch. It was well hit but it was by no means crushed. It wasn’t a good batter faced for Wainwright, but any pitcher would take that as an outing’s low point. An innocuous Francisco Cervelli fly out to Harrison Bader ended the inning.
In the second inning, on three pitches, Wainwright led things off by striking out Corey Dickerson with a pair of curves and a four-seamer, with a 16 MPH gap between his curve average and fastball. Wainwright is clearly relying on his off-speed stuff, which is fine as long as your velocity is enough to keep batters honest (unless he magically starts throwing a knuckleball, and as much as I want to believe in Adam Wainwright, I’m going to draw the line there).
It was a more laborous next AB with Josh Harrison, but the result was the same for Adam Wainwright, though he threw the curve just one time out of six (Harrison fouled it off). The next at-bat, however, did not go as well, with Colin Moran parking Wainwright’s 85 MPH cutter into the right-center field seats. Jordy Mercer fell behind 0-2, looking at a 74 MPH curve and 90 MPH sinker, and eventually grounded to Paul DeJong, ending the inning with one run surrendered.
To this point, it looked like Adam Wainwright more or less has the pitches needed to survive, at least for a two-inning stretch, but it was still fair to wonder if the Moran home run was indicative of some kind of “if he misses, it could get ugly” trend. But again, far too early to tell.
The three pitches to Trevor Williams, the Pirates’ pitcher, ranged from 88 to 89, so I think it’s safe to say Wainwright phoned in the first batter he faced in the top of the third, which was a mistake, as Williams reached on a single. The next batter, Adam Frazier, lined out to Jose Martinez (ideally, all pitchers will avoid allowing balls to be hit to Jose Martinez, but that’s not really Wainwright’s fault). And then things started to unravel a bit. And by a bit, I mean considerably. I’m just trying to be nice.
Starling Marte did that whole “Wainwright better not miss because it might get ugly” thing by hitting a deep home run to center field, well out of the reach of Harrison Bader. On the next pitch Wainwright threw, Josh Bell singled. Wainwright fell behind 2-0 to Francisco Cervelli, and while he did bounce back to 2-2, Cervelli singled off another 75 MPH curve. And then Corey Dickerson singled, scoring a fourth run.
The next two batters, Josh Harrison and Colin Moran, recorded outs, but the inning was certainly a major disappointment for Wainwright. He batted in the bottom of the third, which I think is fine, as there were two outs and no runners on base and the odds of scoring a run weren’t going to be greatly increased with anyone on the bench batting instead. Wainwright coming back out for the fourth inning, even with the bottom of the order coming up for the Pirates, was certainly more arguable.
Jordy Mercer grounded out to third base on the second pitch he saw, and the next batter, Trevor Williams, did the same. Wainwright’s velocity is down a few miles per hour from the inning before, and he’s probably pitching worse than the inning before. It’s almost as though there is a ton of luck in pitching and overanalyzing a small sample size of results is a mistake. Adam Frazier weakly flied out to center field, and just like that, Adam Wainwright has a nine-pitch, 1-2-3 inning.
The Cardinals tied the game 4-4 in the bottom of the fourth, and in a move I disagreed with adamantly, Mike Shildt stook with Wainwright entering the fifth. Maybe it’s just until the lefties come up. Maybe it’s to (ugh) get Wainwright the possibility of a win. I don’t know. But following a Starling Marte retirement (with help from a nifty Paul DeJong play), Wainwright retired six straight batters. And after Josh Bell hit it straight to a shifted Kolten Wong, it was seven in a row. And, go figure, a squibber back to Wainwright to end the inning, again, 1-2-3. Wainwright seemed better than the previous two innings, but there’s probably a lot of results-based confirmation bias at play, and his velocity gap between his speed and off-speed, to use the technical term, was quite a bit smaller.
Wainwright survived. And after five innings, in which he allowed two home runs, four runs, seven hits, no walks (definitely the part that made me the happiest), and three strikeouts, the Cardinals correctly pinch-hit for Wainwright to start the bottom of the fifth. And Greg Garcia got a single in his place.
Adam Wainwright showed moments of competence tonight, but beyond the second inning, he looked shaky. He walked on eggshells with his velocity, and for a couple innings he had enough, and then he looked measurably worse. Adam Wainwright might be able to contribute in a meaningful way to the bullpen in a postseason run, but I can’t say I’m jumping up and down to see him starting games.