Adam Wainwright’s full-time return to starting pitching was supposed to help bolster a Cardinals rotation that lost Lance Lynn to injury, and soften the blow of John Lackey’s departure in free agency.
Instead, Wainwright, who starts for the first time in May tonight, had serious struggles in April, which meant his presence in the rotation has yet to provide the stability that was expected entering 2016. More than a calendar year has passed since Wainwright suffered an Achilles injury while trying to run out of the batters box in a start against the Brewers that cost him most of the 2015 season.
In case your memory is a bit foggy:
As it turns out, Wainwright wasn’t out for the season, as he made his return in late September and even pitched in a pair of postseason games against the Cubs in the NLDS.
However, the results have not been what anyone would expect from a pitcher with four top-three Cy Young finishes including being runner-up to Clayton Kershaw in 2014.
The numbers dating back to his return on Sept. 30, which was the first of three late-season relief appearances, are eye-opening for all the wrong reasons. In addition to surrendering an increasing number of hard hit balls, Wainwright hasn’t missed bats (11.5 K%) and has allowed a higher rate of walks (8.6 BB%) than he is accustomed to.
Wainwright, 34, has been a bit unlucky with a 61.7 percent strand rate and batters owning a .321 BABIP. But that hard hit rate suggests his struggles can’t all be pegged to tough luck.
Wainwright’s pitch mix and PITCHf/x pitch values are worth noting here, even if we’re looking at a small sample size.
From the time he returned from the Tommy John procedure that cost him his 2011 season and his final start of the 2015 campaign, Wainwright posted a 51.9 wCB – which was the most valuable such pitch according to PITCHf/x’s pitch value. His fastball was pretty good, too, grading out as the 15th best during that stretch. Neither pitch has found that kind of success in his return from the Achilles injury. In fact, his fastball has graded out to a -1.0 wFB, while the curve has been his only pitch to grade out with a positive (1.0) in his eight appearances.
Five starts isn’t a grand sample size, but it is enough to raise some eyebrows. Wainwright probably has about 25 starts left in the season to make this look like a blip on the radar in retrospect. It’s not as if a pitcher with Wainwright’s pedigree can’t break out of his early season slump at any time, but the fact that he is slumping is notable and newsworthy, especially when you consider his importance to the Cardinals.