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.