On Monday night, Adam Wainwright – two-time world champion, likely Cardinal Hall of Famer and rotation mainstay since the late aughts – started a baseball game for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals ended up winning the game 8-7 to keep pace in a tight wild card and division race.
So that means things were all peachy afterward, right?
If you’d have told any Cardinal fan a few years ago that an Adam Wainwright start in 2018 would generate anything reminiscent of controversy, most fans likely would have dismissed you. Sure, 2018 is his age 37 season, but even until 2015 (age 33, mind you) Wainwright was still a model of excellence for National League pitchers. He cooked up almost a win’s worth of fWAR in only 28 innings – some of which came later in the season – and made an improbable return to the mound for a few relief appearances.
Fast-forward three years, and this is what we’re dealing with now.
Adam Wainwright openly criticizing a seemingly friendly, well-known media acquaintance – and his teammates dog piling on – is not the reality we should be living in. But here we are.
Much of the fan and media chagrin stems from the fact that Wainwright was given another start this weekend against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cardinals current biggest rival in the race for a National League Wild Card berth. And the reaction makes sense, at least on the surface. Wainwright’s start wasn’t exactly sterling, as he finished with five innings pitched, four earned runs and seven hits allowed.
But perhaps the organization is onto something. Maybe – aside from his status as a modern day Cardinal hero – Wainwright does deserve another start, even in the midst of a playoff race. So let’s take a closer look at Monday’s start and see what we can take away.
17 pitches, one hit, no runs, one strikeout
Wainwright’s first inning in months as a major league starter came against a fairly solid top of the Pirates’ lineup: Adam Frazier (123 wRC+); Starling Marte (108); Josh Bell (110); and Francisco Cervelli (126).
Things started off in a very Wainwright-like fashion.
This is the type of Wainwright most of us expected to see in his waning years. While his average fastball velocity has declined, Wainwright has turned to his other arsenal – sinkers, cutters and his old Uncle Charlie – to get outs. Against Frazier, Wainwright put a sinker and cutter on the outside middle before pulling the strings on his first strikeout in months.
It was a lot of the same with Starling Marte, who grounded out to Paul DeJong. Wainwright didn’t display as much accuracy in this at-bat. In fact, he got away with two sinkers sitting stomach-high, one of which Marte watched and the other he fouled off. But Wainwright was able to turn to his curveball once again to induce the grounder.
Josh Bell’s at-bat was the first tough one of the evening.
Middle-in isn’t one of Bell’s best zones, as his xwOBA there is .331. However, Wainwright made a (possibly) concerted effort to pound him inside and ended up all over the zone. A 91-mph sinker probably wasn’t going to produce much more than a single, but it probably isn’t the best pitch to go with against Bell.
Fortunately, no real damage was done. Wainwright got a cutter over to start Cervelli’s at-bat then got him to fly out on a pitch that registered as a slider, but was likely a flatter curveball.
17 pitches, one home run, one run, two strikeouts
Wainwright started his second inning on a particularly strong note, getting Corey Dickerson to swing at three pitches in a row: a low-and-out curveball, a high-and-tight fastball and then a buried curveball in the dirt.
Harrison’s at-bat took three more pitches, but the strategy was sounder, as was his accuracy.
Harrison is not a great outside hitter or much of a walker, so the commitment to staying out of the zone was well-advised.
Colin Moran’s at-bat didn’t go as well. Wainwright had trouble finding the zone on two of his first three pitches. He then grooved a cutter down and low for Moran, who has a .382 xwOBA in that area. So it’s not hard to see why the ball got out.
Light-hitting shortstop Jordy Mercer grounded out on another curveball to end the inning. Wainwright lost his control on an 89-mph fastball on pitch three, but mostly hit his spots on the outside.
26 pitches, one home run, three runs
Undoubtedly Wainwright’s toughest inning, likely coinciding with the second time through the Pirates order. Wainwright didn’t help himself by leaving an 89-mph fastball down-the-middle and up to pitcher Trevor Williams, putting one on with no outs for the top of the order.
From there, a two patterns emerged: Pirates attacking Wainwright early in the order before he can leave the zone; and Wainwright leaving pitches up. Adam Frazier lined a middle-up-and-in cutter to Jose Martinez on the second pitch of his at-bat. Starling Marte also only saw two pitches, and didn’t let Wainwright get away with a bad mistake.
An 89-mph sinker right down the middle is essentially batting practice to a hitter like Starling Marte.
Wainwright turned to his curveball for Josh Bell’s second at-bat, but Bell waited on the inside-middle pitch and lined it up the middle. Thus far in the inning, the Pirates have seen eight pitches and gathered three hits and four hard hit balls. Wainwright is also struggling to keep the ball down, especially with his fastball and sinker.
Francisco Cervelli’s second at-bat is one of the more interesting – in my humble opinion – of Wainwright’s start. It was longer than any of the inning’s previous at-bats, but still only five pitches. Wainwright was able to stay high and inside on Cervelli, but I noticed something looking over the game information. Wainwright didn’t throw any fastballs, instead reverting to cutters and curveballs. The choice of cutters is an interesting one, as Cervelli is an excellent cutter hitter according to Fangraphs’ Pitch Values per 100 innings (7.41 runs above average).
However, it’s not so much the choice of throwing cutters, as it is the decision to move away from fastballs. Wainwright would throw two more full innings after this inning, and he threw a combined four fastballs. Much of the conversation postgame was centered around Wainwright’s loss of velocity mid-game, and it’s a valid question: in his last three innings of work, Wainwright would only throw one pitch above 90-mph. It was a sinker. Wainwright’s lack of a dependable fastball is a major detriment to his success moving forward, especially if he’s unable to spot it, like he had trouble doing for much of this game.
Getting back to the at-bat, Wainwright eventually turned back to his curveball twice, though neither was that effective. His first was a little too high, but caught the zone. The second was inside and slightly lower, just enough so for Cervelli to get his hands around and ground the ball into left field.
After a mound visit, Wainwright turned to an inside-out approach against Corey Dickerson, to not much success. He got himself in a 2-0 hole before coaxing a swinging strike on a curveball. However, count remained in Dickerson’s favor, and he lined a high sinker into center field for the game’s fourth run.
Wainwright was able to get the next two batters out – Harrison on a second pitch high cutter and Moran on a 3-2 outside curveball. In Moran’s at-bat, Wainwright threw five curveballs out of the seven pitches he threw. One thing I’ve noticed over last few years is how Wainwright’s curveball, while still his best pitch, also tends to be a crutch. His non-curveball command isn’t as sharp as it used to be, and the Pirates hit his sinkers and cutters pretty well through the majority of the first three innings. He was able to skirt around his command issues for the rest of the game, but it’s something that needs to be addressed before this weekend’s start.
9 pitches, no runs
This is a hard estimation to make given that two of the three batters were Jordy Mercer and Trevor Williams.
Mercer stayed with the Pirates’ aggressive by swinging at the second pitch he saw. Fortunately, Wainwright was able to place a curveball in a place where Mercer would roll over on it. Williams got a better pitch to hit (curveball middle-in) but, being a pitcher that isn’t Adam Wainwright or Madison Bumgarner, reverted to pitcher luck and grounded out as well.
Frazier’s at-bat definitely fits the mold of what John was saying above. Wainwright tossed an 87-mph fastball high and outside before putting two curveballs right over the heart of the plate. Maybe some batted ball luck was due to be in his favor, as Frazier watched the first and flew the second out to Gold Glove Deserver Harrison Bader.
12 pitches, no runs
Wainwright, ever the Dave Duncan student, ended his night cleanly on three ground ball outs. This was one of his better innings sequence-wise as it seems like every ball he threw had a purpose.
Marte’s at-bat was the scariest.
Those first three pitches are probably the type of pitching that will give Wainwright the most success moving forward. He places a first pitch cutter over the plate before going low and out of the zone to coax Marte into believing that third-pitch sinker is a better pitch than it really is. Those fourth and fifth pitches aren’t great, and almost spoil that great sequence. But Wainwright was able to get away with them when Marte grounded out to DeJong.
Wainwright employed a similar strategy against Bell, getting a cutter over before going down-and-away with a curveball. This sets a cutter inside, which Bell grounds easily to Kolten Wong. Another nice at-bat from Waino.
Wainwright slightly changed things up for Cervelli’s third at-bat, busting him high and tight with two fastballs. I actually don’t mind that call, as neither was in much danger of being put in play. I especially liked the next two pitches, as Wainwright went down-and-away with two curveballs. Getting Cervelli to swing and miss before grounding softly back to the pitcher. Wainwright’s night is done on one of his better innings pitched.
- Wainwright is still struggling with diminished velocity on his fastball. He was regularly touching the low 90s in his first two innings, but only got one pitch above the mark in his last three. Again, this isn’t exactly a fatal flaw, but it does lower his ceiling quite a bit on how useful he’s going to be. That is, unless he turns into Greg Maddux redux, which none of us would mind, I’m sure.
- His command is a bit spotty, but workable. The curveball is clearly still Wainwright’s most reliable pitch, and it’s obvious by how much he goes to it in tough spots and late in starts. If he’s going to be a useful piece of the rotation in the last few weeks, he’ll need to recover his command of the sinker and cutter, working the former down in the zone and the latter away from the middle. Both of the home runs he allowed came as a result of shaky location, though calling that Marte sinker, “shaky,” would definitely be taking the high road.
- Does Wainwright deserve another start? I mean… sure? There have been a lot of valid arguments against allowing Wainwright to start a crucial stretch game against a playoff rival, but there’s no one out there that could argue it’s the worst idea in the world. For the mistakes Wainwright made in this start, he actually didn’t pitch all that poorly. He ended his evening with two three-up-three-down innings, and only pitched really poorly for about half an inning. He’s likely good for five to six innings with the expectation he’ll keep the game relatively close. The only issue with that is the strain it might put on the bullpen, which is certainly a big concern at this point.
Back in May, I wrote about Adam Wainwright, a potential role in the bullpen, and how time may be running out on the narrative he and the Cardinals are trying to write about the twilight of his career. Like it or not, he’s getting another shot. He worked hard at his rehab and has the belief of the organization. Now he’ll have to work to win over a lot of fans with mixed feelings by proving his merits in a big spot this weekend.