The Wainwright Report


Adam Wainwright was amazing last night. Just flat-out, unequivocally brilliant. 

Wainwright went the distance, earning his first shutout since 2010 by dominating the Padres from delivery number one to pitch number 111, an 86 mph cutter that resulted in a game-ending groundball force play off the bat of Jesus Guzman. He threw more than twice as many strikes as balls, he walked just a single hitter -- with two away in the ninth inning, no less -- and he struck out a season-high nine. 

As I said before, brilliant. 

It was just the sort of performance the Cardinals needed, too; a recent run of pitching struggles had pushed the bullpen to the limit. Wainwright's complete game effort was just as important in terms of giving the relief corps an off night as it was in terms of that whole, um, you know, winning thing. 

Wainwright was very emotional after the game, and it's easy to understand why. It hasn't been the easiest road for him in the early going this season, trying to make his way back from Tommy John surgery, struggling to regain his form. There was as much relief as joy in Adam's manner in the clubhouse last night; the relief of a player feeling himself again after a long fight to get there. 

Welcome back, Adam. 

The thing about Wainwright's season so far this year is this: he actually hasn't been that bad. It has felt much worse at times, in large part because the expectations for Adam are so high. Even trying to temper those expectations, understanding the man is coming back from a major arm surgery, the fact is we expect Adam Wainwright to be, well, Adam Wainwright. And when he's not, it's a shock to the system, even when there's a perfectly good reason for it. 

But really, it you look at Wainwright's statistics, he looks a whole lot more like himself than it has felt like this season. There's really only one number that's much out of line -- it's a big one, I will say that right now -- and we'll get to that a little later. 

The wins, losses, and ERA all look ugly -- 3-5, a 4.78 ERA even after last night's shutout -- but the underlying numbers tell a different story. 

Waino's strikeouts per nine this season currently sits at 8.37. In 2009, that number was 8.19; in 2010 it was 8.32. So, he's striking out hitters at approximately the same rate as he did in his back-to-back Cy Young runner-up seasons. (What a clumsy sentence. Oy. I hope I don't get docked a day's pay for that.) We've heard plenty of talk from all corners this year about how it looks as if Wainwright's stuff is still a little flat, and I actually agree for the most part, but the strikeout rate indicates he's missing plenty of bats. The stuff is plenty good enough. 

Adam's walk rate is 2.91/9, which is a little elevated. He was at 2.19 in 2010 and 2.55 in 2009, so there is a noticeable -- if not huge -- difference. However, of the 17 walks Wainwright has allowed this season, 9 came in just two games. (The two games before last night, in fact.) Take out those two starts, and Wainwright has walked just 8 hitters in 7 starts, covering 42.2 innings. Much, much better. Of course, those two starts we just agreed to pretend didn't happen totally happened, so you can't just ignore them. Even so, I think it's a fair caveat to keep in mind, that the bulk of Waino's walks came in two big bunches, and he's been remarkably good at limiting walks the rest of the time. 

Which brings us to the one big number that's way out of line -- and doing most of the damage to both Adam's numbers and the perception of his performance. Home runs. 

Wainwright has been absolutely crushed on homers this season; he's allowing 1.20 home runs per 9, which is over twice the rate he gave up the long ball in 2010, and almost twice his 2009 pace as well. The home run has been the bane of Adam's season so far; it's the only thing about his performance that jumps out as completely different from what he has done in the past. 

What is a little surprising is that Adam has given up such a huge number of homers despite actually posting the best ground ball percentage of his career. He's getting more grounders than ever before, yet he's giving up the long ball at a clip well above his career numbers too. 

The culprit is an extremely high percentage of fly balls that have left the park. For the season, Wainwright has seen 18.9% of the fly balls he's allowed go over the wall. That's well out of line with his career numbers of 8.1%, and likely to normalize as the season goes on. Now, I'm not going to say that number is entirely bad luck; Adam has definitely thrown more meatballs this season than in the past, and bad pitches are just flat-out more likely to leave the ballpark. Even so, HR/FB% is a number that tends to regress toward the norm, and when it does Waino's overall numbers will start to look a whole lot better. 

To wit, Wainwright's 4.78 ERA is accompanied by a 3.86 FIP, which is still a full run higher than his 2010 FIP. However, his xFIP -- which is basically just fielding independent percentage with a normalized home run rate -- is 3.10, right in line with the 3.02 he posted in '10. In other words, if Wainwright were allowing home runs at a "normal" rate this season, he would basically be putting up the same exact numbers he has in the past. 

Last night was absolutely magical to watch; I can only imagine what it felt like for Wainwright to be out there, finding that groove that has seemed just out of reach this season. What's amazing, though, is even while that groove has been so elusive, Adam has been much closer to the pitcher he has been in the past than I think most of us realize. Just how good he may be when he finds that groove consistently this year is anybody's guess. 

I, for one, am awfully excited to find out. 

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