By In Stuff

Wainwright’s World

Sometime in 2010, I decided that Cliff Lee had to be a witch. He had been a very good pitcher up to that year — heck, he won a Cy Young Award in 2008 — but there’s a difference between “very good pitcher” and what Cliff Lee turned into for the first half of 2010. He started that year in Seattle because the Mariners ludicrously determined that they were contenders (they ended up losing 101). His first start, he pitched seven scoreless innings, gave up three hits, struck out eight. He didn’t walk a batter.

His second start, he gave up four runs but, again, he didn’t walk a batter. His third start, he didn’t walk a batter either.

After his first start in June, Cliff Lee had struck out 50. He had walked four. FOUR! Cliff Lee? Heck, he was Bruce Lee. There is a prominent theory out there, sparked by Voros McCracken and shaped by numerous other smart people, that pitchers’ mainly have control over three things: Strikeouts, walks and home runs. The rest is a foggy collection of line drives and luck and defense. Cliff Lee had struck out 50, walked four and allowed one home run. By the theory, Lee was pitching about as well as any human being in the history of planet earth.

And, then he pitched better.

Next start: Complete game, seven strikeouts, zero walks.

Next start: Seven innings, three strikeouts, zero walks.

Next start: Complete game shutout, seven strikeouts, zero walks.

Next start: Complete game, nine strikeouts, zero walks.

It was insane. It’s like pitching was a Rubik’s Cube and Cliff Lee had solved it. He walked one batter his next two starts and then the Mariners traded Lee to Texas, where he was good but not THiS good. Lee’s numbers in Seattle: 103 innings, 89 strikeouts, 6 walks.

Repeat: 109 innings, 89 strikeouts, 6 walks.

There had not been anything like that, not for a starting pitcher ever. That is: Until St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright this year.

Wainwright, like Lee, was a very good pitcher before this season. He absolutely could have won the Cy Young Award in either 2009 or 2010. He was a classic power pitcher — 6-foot-7, textbook form, big knee bend, high leg finish, low 90s fastball with some sink, power slider that could overpower hitters, maybe the best curveball in baseball, a change-up he threw to keep you honest. He was like the template power righty that every team wants . Then in 2011, during spring training, he told the team his elbow hurt when he was throwing batting practice. Everyone knows what follows. Tommy John surgery, a year-plus recovery time, early struggles upon return, we’ve seen it a hundred times already.

And we saw it with Wainwright. He missed the entire 2011 season. When he returned, he struggled. For a couple of months in 2012 he really couldn’t get anybody out. His control was shaky, his command even worse. The league hit him. Around the middle of June, though, he started to be the old Adam Wainwright. He had a great four-game stretch in August, where he allowed four earned runs in 30 innings, threw one shutout, completed another game. He was back to being one of the better pitchers in baseball.

But none of it could have prepared us for this season.

Wainwright’s control was always pretty good, but it was never much more than that. In 2010, he had finished fourth in the NL in walks per nine innings — that was the only time he ever finished in the Top 10. That was also the only year he finished in the Top 10 in strikeout-to-walk. He had always been a workhorse kind of pitcher, on the attack, never giving in, a bit like a Josh Johnson or a bigger David Cone or his excellent teammate Chris Carpenter.

So how do you explain this season? Now, suddenly, he’s like, well, nobody, ever:

1st start: 6 innings, 6 strikeouts, 0 walks.

2nd: 7 innings, 6 strikeouts, 0 walks.

3rd: Shutout, 12 strikeouts, 0 walks.

4th: 7 innings, 4 strikeouts, 0 walks.

5th: 8 1/3 innings, 9 strikeouts, 1 walk.

6th: 7 innings, 6 strikeouts, 2 walks.

7th: 5 1/3, 5 strikeouts, 0 walks.

8th: Shutout, 7 strikeouts, 1 walk

9th: 6 innings, 8 strikeouts, 1 walk

10th: 7 1/3, 6 strikeouts, 1 walk

11th: 8 innings, 5 strikeouts, 0 walks

12: Complete game, 10 strikeouts, 0 walks

Look at that. Twelve starts and in more than half of them he didn’t walk anybody. In only one start did he walk multiple batters. The season numbers: 89 innings, 84 strikeouts, 6 walks. He has also allowed just two home runs all year, which means his FIP — Fielding Indepndent Pitching ERA — is a minuscule 1.78. Only three starting pitchers since Deadball — Pedro in ’99, Gooden in ’84 and Gibson in ’68 — finished a season with a lower FIP than Adam Wainwright has right now.*

*It should be noted here that Detroit’s Anibal Sanchez is putting up a historic season of his own. He has struck out amazing 89 in just 71 innings, walked only 18 and allowed only three homers. His 1.87 FIP right now would rank sixth in baseball history, behind the four above and Sandy Koufax in 1963.

Wainwright has always been a thoughtful pitcher who has constantly looked for small ways to improve his game. He’s a terrific fielder, for instance — he won the Gold Glove in 2009 — and he’s a good hitter for a pitcher. He studies the game and seems a student of human nature too. It’s not surprising that, after adjusting to the new ligament in his elbow, he would tighten up his command, throw strikes, dominate with his awesome consistency. But, even so, this is really extraordinary stuff. His 14-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio would be, by far, the highest in baseball history should he maintain it … but it’s hard to imagine he can really maintain that level of absurdity. Unless he’s actually the witch.

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17 Responses to Wainwright’s World

  1. Rob Smith says:

    The Braves traded Wainwright and Jason Marquis (good riddance) for GAAAAK! JD Drew! It did take a few years for Wainwright to develop, but it would be nice to have him right now! That’s probably one the front office would like fans to forget about.

    • Jason says:

      To be fair to the Braves, while the price for one year of Drew may have been high, he DID put up a .305/.436/.569 batting line with excellent defense, good for 8.4 fWAR — nearly 20% of his entire career’s value. He did a fantastic job taking over RF from Gary Sheffield — who himself had two excellent seasons in Atlanta — and was followed by the death knell of Raul Mondesi’s career, which then led to the promotion of one Jeff Francoeur. So, in a roundabout sort of way, J.D. Drew was the impetus for the Jeff Francoeur era in Atlanta.

      … You know what, you’re right. That was a terrible move.

    • Ross says:

      Drew may be one of the most reviled players of the past 20 years (especially by Phillie fans, who even boo his brother, and Boston fans, who call him Nancy Drew), but he had a ridiculously good ’04 season, his only year with the Braves. He hit .305/.436/.569, 31 HR, 93 RBI, scored 118 runs and walked 118 times. Finished top 10 in the NL in a ton of categories, including OPS+. Had 8.3 baseball-reference WAR (8+ is considered MVP level).

      Obviously in hindsight it hurts to have lost Wainwright for one year of Drew (and strange for the Braves to deal away a local-born former 1st rounder), but Wainwright didn’t become an MLB SP until 2007 and Drew helped the Braves to the playoffs in ’04, so hard to fault them too much. As Cliff Lee’s career has shown, the prospects in these deals work out so rarely, it’s often best to get the proven thing.

  2. Rob Smith says:

    A couple of thoughts on Lee. He went from a Pitcher friendly park in Seattle, with a team that was built for pitching and defense to Texas, which was a hitters park and a team built for clubbing the ball. I’m not sure their players were poor defensive players, but how do we reconcile the numbers? Lee’s ERA went from 2.34 in Seattle to 3.98 in Texas in about the same number of starts. He did allow .9 HR/9 innings in Tex vs. .4 in Seattle. His walks went from .5/9 inn in Seattle to 1.0/9 in Tex. And his hits/9 went from 8 to 8.5. Half a HR per 9, half a walk and half a hit per 9 shouldn’t account for a 1.5 increase in earned runs. His WHIP in Texas was still just 1.058. I guess those are the “vagaries” Joe speaks about.

    • Ross says:

      It’s really just a case of small sample size. His first start with Texas, he pitched a complete game and allowed 6 ER. Then he had back-to-back August starts where he allowed 14 ER in 13.2 IP. Take out those three and he had a 2.93 ERA his other 12 starts with Texas. If he pitched there the whole season or for a couple years it’s very possible those would just be a few outlier starts and overall his ERA would settle into his career range.

      He actually has a 2.74 ERA in his 42 career starts at Philly’s Citizens Bank Park (considered a hitter’s park) versus 2.85 in 15 games at Safeco Field, so I suspect it would even out over time. Lee’s had a really interesting career in a lot of ways. In addition to all the lopsided trades he’s been in, it’s how dramatically he changed as a pitcher in 2008 when he wont the Cy Young out of nowhere after being unceremoniously sent to the minors and left off the postseason roster in ’07.

  3. Zach says:

    To be fair to the Mariners (since it so rarely happens), the price they paid for Lee (marginal prospects Phillipe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and Juan Ramirez) was less than what they got back from Texas (though of course Justin Smoak has basically been a bust, he’s still done more than those three combined), meaning they basically got paid to have Cliff Lee for a season. The real question is why in the world the Phillies gave Lee away for a year, and then signed him as a free agent anyhow. Sure, they got a few prospects, but as mentioned, those prospects sucked. Maybe if they keep Lee they get past the Giants in the NLCS and possibly even win the World Series.

    • Ross says:

      One of the great “what ifs” for the Phillies. After dealing so many prospects for Lee the year before and Doc that winter, they felt they needed to replenish the farm system. Of course in hindsight they got no value for Lee and ended up dealing even more prospects that summer to get Oswalt and really good ones the next year to get Pence. Interestingly, Dom Brown was the one Amaro refused to trade during that period and now that’s suddenly looking brilliant.

      Lee’s been traded 4 times and the team acquiring him has always gotten BY FAR the better end of the deal. I wrote this about his really interesting career and the perplexing lopsidedness of all those trades:

    • civil writes says:

      I’d hardly say that the Rangers got BY FAR the better end of the deal than the Mariners. The Rangers, already in first place, got a comparatively-meh half-season of Cliff Lee. While the prospects haven’t exactly panned out in Seattle, Lueke was traded for John Jaso. Jaso had a solid season in Seattle before he was traded for Mike Morse, who hasn’t exactly been great (-7.9 Fld contributes to a 0.0 fWAR), but at least he’s hit a few home runs.

      Or does the Mariners throwing in Mark Lowe really tip the scales in the Rangers’ favor?

  4. Joe says:

    And better yet, Wainwright is one of the best teammates in baseball. His commitment to the Cardinal Way and to helping in the development of the next generation of Cardinals starters is a large part of the reason the Redbirds resigned him before the season began. If he were a jerk, StL would be letting him play out his contract. He’s not. They’re not.
    Dark Side of the Mood

  5. Wainwright is a great pitcher having a great year. But hitters are striking out at a historic rate all over baseball in 2013. So any sentence that resembles “His 14-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio would be, by far, the highest in baseball history” should be understood to read something like “His 14-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio would be, by far, the highest in baseball this year.” Like batting average in 1930, ERA in 1968, or home runs in 2001, any stat having to do with strikeouts by pitchers in 2013 should come with a huge asterisk next to it.

    • Vidor says:

      Except that even in this year of the whiff no one else is anywhere near those numbers so your asterisk is unnecessary.

    • Ian R. says:

      It’s true that the high-K environment makes Wainwright’s achievement possible, but his K:BB ratio wouldn’t just be the best ever, it would be the best ever by a country mile. The all-time record holder is Bret Saberhagen at 11:1, and he did that in a strike-shortened season.

    • Mark Daniel says:

      Rick is correct. Since 1900, only 4 pitchers had a K/BB ratio of 10 or higher. Only 5 have had a K/BB over 9. Three of them are Saberhagen 1994 (11.0), Cliff Lee 2010 (10.3), and Schilling 2002 (9.6). The other two are Wainwright (14.0) and Bartolo Colon (10.5). Both of those two are from this year. I suppose it could be coincidence, but it’s probably not.

  6. Phil says:

    He doesn’t have the strikeouts, so I realize it’s not as impressive as Wainwright and the rest, but Bartolo Colon has thus far only walked four batters in 70.1 innings this season. The lowest BB/9 figure since the deadball-era ended was Carlos Silva in 2005 (0.4301), followed by Saberhagen in 1994 (0.6598), and–him again–Cliff Lee in 2010 (0.7630). Colon sits at 0.5118 right now.

  7. It’s players like Wainwright who help the Cardinals have continued success. Like the above commenter noted, he’s a great teammate and someone who prepares meticulously for every start. He’s someone who’s willing to help out the young pitchers that the Cards have needed this season (just as Wainwright learned from Chris Carpenter). The contract he signed was a great, great investment for the Cardinals, and it goes beyond his talent on the field. Hopefully, the young pitchers can continue to learn from him.

  8. Ross says:

    Wainwright’s good and all, but can we get some props for Lucas Harrell, who has 37 walks and 35 strikeouts in 63.2 innings? He’s the only SP with enough innings to qualify for the ERA lead who has more walks than strikeouts.

    I think in this analogy Edinson Volquez is the Cliff Lee, the man dedicated to a career of pooor command. Despite a very good 8.4 k/9 rate in his career, he has only 1.74 K/BB, finishing over 2 K/BB only once (because he struck out 206 that year). 77 qualified SPs alone finished higher than 2.0 K/BB last year, so it’s really not that hard.

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