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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Is Adam Wainwright the Cardinals' Ace Again?

The Cardinals find themselves in need of an ace for a one-game playoff at week’s end for the most important game of the season (so far, of course; fingers crossed). This of course brings the question: who is the ace of the staff? Who can Mike Matheny turn to in a must-win scenario?

Really, the Cardinals have a nice rotation in that every starter is at least above average. Most teams would be thrilled with a top four of Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn, and Jaime Garcia.* While that’s good for a full series, though, it’s less good for the coin-flip match that St. Louis will now have to go through.

*Plus a bullpen containing Jake Westbrook, Joe Kelly, Chris Carpenter (even coming off of his rather horrific injury), Trevor Rosenthal, and Shelby Miller. That, ladies and gentlemen, is depth.
None of them is having a Justin Verlander- or Felix Hernandez-type season, where it’s immediately clear that they’re the go to guy. But Adam Wainwright was that guy in the past. Before his Tommy John surgery, he had two straight seasons in the top 3 in Cy Young voting. Now that his first season back is done, can he again be counted on to be the go-to starter?

You may say no based on a cursory glance. So far this year, Wainwright has a 14-13 and a 3.94 ERA. He’s also just shy of 200 innings, with 198.2, while he passed 230 in both 2009 and 2010. That’s to be expected to an extent, though. Next year, he could easily be right back at 210 or 220 innings, with this year to help build back his strength so he can go deeper into games.

Based just on those numbers, it’s easy to say that he’s not back in his 2009-2010 form. He might be a lot closer than you realize, though. First, let’s look at his ERA in those years:

2009: 2.63
2010: 2.42
2012: 3.94

So what is he doing worse? Well, maybe his control is worse.

2009: 8.19 K%, 2.55 BB%
2010: 8.32 K%, 2.19 BB%
2012: 8.34 K%, 2.36 BB%

Well, he’s actually striking out a higher percentage of batters, and his walk rate is right in between 2009 and 2010. So that’s not it. Maybe batters are hitting him more, or getting more home runs off of him then?

2009: .244 Average against, 0.66 HR/9
2010: .224 Average against, 0.59 HR/9
2012: .259 Average against, 0.68 HR/9

Well, he’s allowing home runs at a rate similar to 2009. and the batting average against isn’t a huge jump up. At least, not enough of a jump to explain a 131 point jump in ERA. So what exactly is different?

Basically, his luck. The following are Wainwright’s batting averages on balls in play and strand rates from the three seasons:

2009: .296, 80.4%
2010: .275, 79.1%
2012: .315, 67.8%

Well, that’s a big shift. Basically, more of the balls opponents are putting into play are falling in for hits, and these hits are randomly clumped together more frequently. Both may be indications of something different, but it’s more likely they aren’t; pitchers often see wild year-to-year fluctuations based on nothing more than bad luck.

In fact, Fangraphs calculates a stat called Fielding Independent Pitching, which is essentially what a pitcher could expect his ERA to be given average luck and an average defense to back him up. For his last three seasons, Wainwright’s FIP marks are:

2009: 3.11
2010: 2.42
2012: 3.11

Essentially, he’s pitching just as well as he did in 2009 (except for the inning difference), when he finished third in Cy Young voting. The Baseball Gods just aren’t on his side this year.

Is this to say that Wainwright should start a one-game playoff? I’m not sure, although I’m leaning towards yes. Kyle Lohse has been good this year, too. But Wainwright looks like his old self, though, and that might be more than Lohse can offer, even in a career year.

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