In May of 2018, I flew on an airplane for the first time in my life to and from San Diego. Long-time readers of the blog may remember this. It was a great trip and San Diego is a lovely city with great food, great drinks, and properly celebrated, immaculate weather. And when I got home from my flight on Sunday afternoon, I felt a little dejected. It wasn’t because the crushing reality of having to go back to work the next morning had hit me. It was because it felt like an era was ending before my eyes.
That afternoon, in the final game of a four-game set against the San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals legend Adam Wainwright, already celebrated as either the second or third best pitcher in franchise history depending on whether you prefer peak (Dizzy Dean) or longevity (Wainwright), returned from what was then known as the Disabled List and was absolutely dreadful. Over 2 1/3 innings, he allowed two runs, but more alarmingly, he walked six batters and was 79 pitches in before he was pulled from the game. This would be his final start for nearly four months. And I truly believed that, for all intents and purposes, the 36 year-old was done.
To be clear, I didn’t think he would never pitch ever again. But I figured his time as something even in the neighborhood of a top-of-the-rotation starter was officially over. His previous two seasons had been lackluster by his previously grand standards, and this coupled with his age and his recent injury history made Wainwright look like deeply damaged goods. That off-season, when the Cardinals signed the free agent Wainwright to a $2 million guaranteed contract (with performance bonuses), it was a small enough money that I can’t say I was furious, but I was also dubious that the Cardinals hadn’t just lit two million dollars on fire in the name of sentimentality.
Since Wainwright re-signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, along with subsequent, steadily increasing one-year contracts, Adam Wainwright has led the Cardinals in innings pitched, and by a wide margin–he has thrown 386 innings, with Jack Flaherty (298 2/3) being the only pitcher in Wainwright’s stratosphere. He has also led the Cardinals in wins, a less-than-ideal statistic for the most part but one which does reflect that Wainwright has been trusted to go deep into games, and has at least been good enough, by and large, to outpitch his opponent. His 3.66 ERA and 4.07 FIP, while not touching his Cy Young-caliber late-twenties and early-thirties seasons, still position Wainwright as an above-average pitcher–12% better than league-average by ERA and 5% better than FIP. This level of success was utterly inconceivable three years ago.
On Wednesday night, Adam Wainwright pitched one of the finest games of his career. Throwing just 88 pitches, Wainwright threw a complete game, two-hit shutout in which he allowed no walks and struck out seven batters. By FanGraphs Game Score, it was the second-best start of Wainwright’s career. He even notched a couple of hits, including a double, in a game in which Wainwright, who exudes genuine passion about batting, drove in more runs than the entirety of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Adam Wainwright turns 40 years old in seventeen days. He was drafted just three months after Wander Franco, a starting player on a first place team, was born. Three years ago, this guy was left completely for dead, and now, he’s a couple more strong starts away from meriting down-ballot Cy Young Award consideration. At 2.5 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, Wainwright has been the most valuable pitcher on the Cardinals, and the third-most valuable player on the team overall. He is right on the doorstep of having his best season on the mound in seven years. And Wainwright is having a season that only three players his age or older ever had with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The gold standard for St. Louis Cardinals seasons by a player aged 39 or older came in 1962, when Stan Musial, 41 years old throughout the entirety of the season, had a 4 fWAR season as the Cardinals’ everyday left fielder. In 505 plate appearances, Musial’s power was somewhat diminished from his heyday, but he still hit 19 home runs, and at the plate, he remained a strong contact hitter, walking more often than he struck out. His defensive numbers were not necessarily great, but they were totally competent, and he was aided by playing alongside Curt Flood, an all-time great defensive center fielder who was 17+ years Musial’s junior. I would also argue that the occasionally-deployed outfield of Minnie Miñoso, Curt Flood, and Stan Musial is the most fascinating outfield the Cardinals have ever utilized–three totally different but fully compelling legends.
Stan Musial of 1962 is by far the #1 39+ position player. #2, with 2.3 fWAR is…Stan Musial of 1961. Ozzie Smith of 1994, hampered by a strike-shortened season, deserves some recognition, with his largely defensive-based 1.9 fWAR, and he likely would have passed Musial if given a full season, but Musial’s 1962 would likely stand alone among position players. Most of the stronger 39+ seasons have come on the pitching end, which isn’t too terribly surprising given everything we know about aging curves. And the Stan Musial of Old Cardinals Pitchers is Grover Cleveland Alexander.
Alexander was 38 when he closed out the Cardinals’ first World Series championship in 1926, and while that singular moment is the most famous thing about Alexander’s Cardinals career (he was an all-timer with the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs for a decade and a half before he arrived in St. Louis), his most productive seasons as a Cardinal came in the next two years. Underwhelming even by the standards of the era–Alexander struck out just 1.61 batters per nine in 1927 and only 2.18 in 1928–he was nevertheless an indispensible part of the first great Cardinals team. In 1927, Alexander was the team’s ace, winning 21 games and netting a 2.52 ERA. In 1928, at 41, he remained a tough innings-eater, with a 16-9 record over 243 2/3 innings. These remain the two greatest 39+ seasons by a Cardinals pitcher.
With all due respect to Grover Cleveland Alexander, I tend to give more credence to post-World War II baseball as “real” baseball by modern standards. Yes, players in the first several decades post-WW2 were throwing far more innings than modern starters, but they weren’t starting fifty games a year, for instance. And so my benchmark for Wainwright, at 2.6 fWAR pitching, to clear isn’t Alexander’s dual 3.9 fWAR seasons, but Murry Dickson’s 1956, in which he was worth 3.5 wins. Unlike Alexander, Dickson is not by any reasonable standard an all-time baseball legend, though he was a quite good player in his day. Originally a Cardinal from 1939 through 1948, Dickson toured Pennsylvania with stints on the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies before, after a rough three-start opening to his 1956 season with the Phillies, the 39 year-old (like Wainwright this season, Dickson would turn 40 in August) was included as a throw-in in a trade for Herm Wehmeier, and Dickson found his second wind. Over 196 1/3 innings with the Cardinals that season, Dickson went 13-8 with a 3.07 ERA and 3.47 FIP. He struck out more batters per nine with the Cardinals than he had in any previous season. And while Dickson couldn’t quite replicate this success in 1957, he went on to a serviceable run as a relief pitcher with the Kansas City Athletics and New York Yankees.
Will Adam Wainwright surpass Murry Dickson? Maybe. I would say he is less likely to succeed than he is to fail on the endeavor, but I’ve been wrong about Adam Wainwright before. Mostly, I’m excited to watch him try, a thing I, years ago, never thought I would say about Adam Wainwright again.