Adam Wainwright is the greatest St. Louis Cardinals pitcher since Bob Gibson, and arguably the greatest St. Louis Cardinals pitcher in history other than Bob Gibson. The minute Adam Wainwright is eligible, he will easily cruise into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame, with the only possible road block being if he gets caught in the midst of a logjam with Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina (though if the Cardinals were ever going to make an exception and admit three people in one year, this would seemingly be the case).

Albert Pujols is, barring something unforseen, going to easily sail into the National Baseball Hall of Fame–I always feel the need to add a caveat since uncodified steroid accusations have already kept one of the few modern hitters unreservedly superior to Pujols out of the Hall of Fame, though seeing David Ortiz make it does give me hope that Albert Pujols being a nice guy that everyone in baseball media seems to like would provide sufficient cushion to whatever random conjecture somebody wants to throw out into the discourse. Yadier Molina, though certainly less overwhelming of a candidate than Pujols, is probably going to make it in–particularly with the modern embrace of pitch framing, Molina’s defensive reputation has only improved, and his high longevity and peak scores by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (which, unlike Baseball Reference, incorporates framing), are well within the normal catcher standards for Cooperstown, even if the rank-and-file voter bestows his candidacy with fewer goat emojis and general fawning than St. Louis does.

Adam Wainwright, however, is a little bit trickier. Adam Wainwright never won a Cy Young Award. He missed large chunks of his playing career due to injuries, and while this has not always been a deal-breaker for Cooperstown, Wainwright’s perfectly fine peak was hardly that of go-to example Sandy Koufax. To be clear, Adam Wainwright will certainly make it onto the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, and based on the ease with which even seemingly fringe candidates are able to garner them, will probably get some votes. But compared to Molina or especially Pujols, Adam Wainwright is an underdog.

But Adam Wainwright’s story also isn’t complete. Assuming he pitches in 2022, a year in which I am assuming Major League Baseball will indeed be played, which he has already announced will be his last, Wainwright’s first round of Hall of Fame votes would not even be revealed until 2028. Perhaps a new metric will be devised that paints Wainwright in an extraordinary new light–I can’t really imagine what said metric would be, but Yadier Molina’s career FanGraphs WAR shot up 18.4 wins in one day on which meaningful baseball games weren’t even played, so I am not going to dismiss the possibility hastily. Perhaps (I would argue this is more likely) a new narrative arc would emerge–Wainwright, say, grits through physical pain to guide the Cardinals to the 2022 World Series and enters a level of folklore which allows voters to look optimistically upon his borderline statistical case (see: Ortiz, David). Perhaps his national profile and general likability increases due to his seemingly inevitable second act as a broadcaster–Wainwright received rave reviews as a postseason broadcaster last year–and this media visibility helps him in a media-driven contest such as Hall of Fame balloting. I’ll assume that FanGraphs’s weirdly defensive stance against Wainwright’s pursuit of bulletin board material has subsided by then.

But I want to consider Adam Wainwright’s Hall of Fame case as a purely statistical candidate based on the statistics we currently have. And right now, he simply isn’t there. I am a big fan, not as a universal absolute but as a general guideline, of the Jay Jaffe JAWS system, a thing I have mentioned repeatedly in my writing, though I also prefer to use a hybrid model which incorporates a player’s career performance and his seven best individual seasons (his peak) as measured not only by Baseball Reference but by FanGraphs (in most non-catcher cases, over the course of a career, this doesn’t make a huge difference, but in the most discussed cases, the margins are so thin that I am happy to look at as much data as possible).

By Hybrid JAWS, Adam Wainwright is, currently, the 118th greatest starting pitcher in Major League Baseball history. This may not seem particularly grandiose, and probably not even close to Cooperstown worthiness, but it should be noted that with sixty-five elected, starting pitcher is far and away the most commonly enshrined position in the Hall (it has also, pre-bullpen expansion, been the most common position, so this shouldn’t be too surprising). But what is particularly interesting to examine with regards to Wainwright is that if Wainwright were elected, he would not even be close to the worst starting pitcher in Cooperstown. Eleven of the sixty-five are below Wainwright in terms of Hybrid JAWS. This doesn’t mean that Wainwright definitely deserves to make it–Tim Hudson, who barely qualified for a second turn on the BBWAA ballot and didn’t receive the 5% of votes needed to qualify for a third, ranks ahead of him, for instance. But at least it won’t be historically egregious.

A frequently cited statistic for determining Hall worthiness is the average production of a Hall of Famer at that position, though my preferred approach is to consider a player’s worthiness not according to the average at a position among a subset of players who are sometimes transcendent and sometimes unworthy, but rather to ask, “Is this guy the (fill in ordinal number of Hall of Famers at position) best (fill in position) ever?” By Hybrid JAWS, Yadier Molina is the 13th greatest catcher of all-time (two of the ones ahead of him, Buster Posey and Joe Mauer, are not yet Hall-eligible), and there are sixteen catchers in the Hall of Fame. While I don’t think the statistical mistake that was inducting Rick Ferrell means that we should induct Mickey Tettleton, in my perfect world we would have sixteen Hall of Famers at the catcher position, though the ones who are in would be different (for instance, among the currently eligible, Gene Tenace would be there), and we would go from there.

Among the sixty-five (again, the number of Hall of Fame starting pitchers) greatest starting pitchers in history, five are either currently active or retired but not yet Hall eligible–Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and CC Sabathia. I’m going to disregard them for now, though all five should (and all but Sabathia probably will) make it eventually. Among those who are retired and eligible for Cooperstown, the 65th greatest starter of all-time is actually a pretty sufficiently big name–Dwight Gooden. Although Gooden was one-and-done when he reached the ballot in 2006, his extraordinary peak meant he probably deserved more of a look.

The key number regarding Gooden is 48.0, which is the average of his career bWAR, his bWAR7, his career fWAR, and his fWAR7. I like that it’s a round number, but I assure you that this is merely a coincidence. There is a trio of starting pitchers not yet Hall-eligible who rank somewhere between Gooden and Wainwright–Félix Hernández, Cole Hamels, and Chris Sale. Injuries have me dubious that Chris Sale will ever accumulate the WAR necessary to reach the Cooperstown threshold, but he’s only barely going to be 33 come Opening Day, so I’m not closing the book just yet. Wainwright, however, has a much more finite timetable–he has announced that he is retiring. He, of course, can retract this, but as he is now in his 40s, I’m inclined to believe he’s serious.

Adam Wainwright’s hybrid JAWS of 41.6 is a fair amount behind that of Dwight Gooden, and closing a 6.4 point gap is going to be a tall order. It is not as though a 6.4 WAR season alone would do the trick–while this would put Wainwright over 50 bWAR and at 56.4 fWAR (assuming he hit 6.4 on both metrics), the impact on Wainwright’s peak would be much smaller, since he was reasonably good in his seventh best season under both metrics (3.0 bWAR, 3.9 fWAR).

Are there baseball seasons good enough to get Adam Wainwright past Dwight Gooden? Sure there are. Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer just had seasons that good in 2018. But, while neither was young, per se, by baseball standards (it was deGrom’s age-30 season and Scherzer’s age-33), there is a big leap to get to Adam Wainwright’s age-40 season which looms ahead. Now, Adam Wainwright at any age, while once one of the best pitchers in the sport, never put a season quite that good. But I just want to know how far back I would have to dig to find an age-40 season in which a pitcher was good enough to get Adam Wainwright to this level of Hall of Fame worthiness. I want to confine my results to the integration era, as, while this whole exercise is based on some level of silliness, I don’t think asking Adam Wainwright to win 40 games and pitch 400 innings is particularly fair.

  • 2004 Randy Johnson: In his final season with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the age-40 Randy Johnson deserved his fifth Cy Young Award in six seasons. His so-so 16-14 record held him back, but The Big Unit posted a 2.60 ERA and 2.30 FIP in what was still very much an offensive-driven era. If Adam Wainwright can replicate Johnson’s 8.2 bWAR and 9.4 fWAR, this would give the Cardinals starter an edge over Gooden in combined career WAR and, astonishingly, a slightly edge by peak WAR. Yeah, this would do.
  • 2005 Roger Clemens: A year after stealing Randy Johnson’s Cy Young Award, Houston Astros ace Roger Clemens probably deserved Chris Carpenter’s 2005 award. In 211 1/3 innings (a mark higher than I would expect from Wainwright but not that out of line), Clemens, who turned forty-three years old in August, finished the season with a league-best 1.87 ERA and 2.87 FIP. He even had his career-best season at the plate, with a .523 OPS that could have qualified him to be Yadier Molina’s backup catcher. And yet while these were beneficial to Wainwright’s totals and his peaks, it leaves his JAWS at 47.2.
  • 1989 Nolan Ryan: The then-42 year-old Ryan got a bit of a career reprieve when he moved at age 42 to the American League and stopped having to bat for himself–this could be something that happens to Adam Wainwright as well, though he will certainly be less receptive to (and, as a relatively competent for a pitcher hitter, less helped by) it. Nolan Ryan finished fifth in Cy Young voting with a 3.20 ERA and a 2.51 FIP in 239 1/3 innings. It was a terrific season. It would help Adam Wainwright close most of his gap. It would, however, leave his JAWS at 45.9, just short of Dwight Gooden’s mark.

So basically what I’m saying is that if Adam Wainwright has a once-every-seventy-five-years season, he should probably make it into Cooperstown. Will this happen? I highly doubt it. Even in the “he falls short but not short enough to not make it” hypothetical, the “easiest” path is likely for Adam Wainwright to post 8.1 WAR under both methods. But if you’d told me four years ago when his career looked absolutely left for dead that I would even half-heartedly entertain the notion, I would have doubted that even more. Godspeed, Waino.

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