I wanted to bang out some words before Adam Wainwright makes his first start of the season.
(That would be Tuesday night, against Jake Arrieta and the Cubs, at Busch Stadium.)
When speaking with my friend David Kaplan on his ESPN affiliate sports radio show in Chicago, “Kap” asked me a question: what do you expect from Adam Wainwright tonight?
My answer: I just don’t know.
It’s true. I really don’t know. And that’s a little unsettling.
Wainwright labored through 2016 and finished with the worst ERA of his MLB career, 4.62. His walk rate went up. His strikeout rate decreased. His home-run rate jumped. The hard-contact rate against him, 31.2 percent, had never been higher in a season. Opponents’ combined onbase+slugging percentage, .785, was a substantial rise from the .631 OPS he allowed from 2009 through 2015.
This was not Waino. Or even close to Waino.
But if you look closely, you can find things to like and respect about Wainwright’s 2016.
He made 33 starts, tied for No. 3 among National League pitchers.
He worked 198.2 innings, which ranked 7th in the NL.
He turned in 18 quality starts, which ranked 14th in the league — ahead of NL notables such as Arrieta (17), Zack Greinke (16), Jacob deGrom (16) and Stephen Strasburg (15.)
Wainwright didn’t get much backup from his defense. His Fielding Independent ERA (3.98) put him at 25th among NL starters. Not great … but not bad, either.
Wainwright’s 2.9 WAR was good enough for 17th among NL starters. Again: Not fabulous, but probably better than we would have guessed.
He suffered from some bad luck; the batting average on balls in play against him was a ridiculously high .334 … or 34 percent above league average.
Waino delivered an extended run of defiantly strong pitching. Over a two-month stretch from June 3 through Aug. 2, Wainwright had a 2.74 ERA in 11 starts and cranked out eight quality starts. It was there. The pitcher that could take over games.
And after that? … another unraveling … with a 5.69 ERA in his final 11 starts.
So what will see from Wainwright in his 2017 debut? He’s 35. He’ll be 36 by the end of August. Time isn’t on his side.
After rupturing his Achilles tendon early in 2015, he returned in full last season but lacked strength and drive in his lower base. He wasn’t dealing pitches at maximum capacity. He wasn’t as powerful. But Wainwright says, his lower-body strength was restored during a determined offseason of hard work.
And you want to believe this. You want goodness for one of the great individuals in St. Louis sports. And he’s been that way for a long time. A genuinely outstanding person. And a pitcher that holds himself to a high standard. Mediocrity eats at him. His passion for pitching is extreme. He lives with a restless desire to be an asset to his team … and to stand among the elite pitchers in the game.
And so here we are, the first start of the new campaign.
I don’t know what Wainwright can do to ward off the effects of age, or a slight drop in his fastball (and cutter) velocity. He must install a defense system. He has to come up with new and different ways to tame hitters. I’m no pitching coach, so I won’t insult him or make a fool of myself by imparting advice.
But I think we can identify a few areas that need to be repaired:
* It’s imperative to get more ground balls. The surest way to cut down on homers, and line drives. Between 2009 and 2015, Wainwright had an above-average ground-ball rate of 50.2 percent. One of the best GB rates in the league. In 2016, the ground-ball rate plummeted to 44.7 percent. That hurt him.
* It’s vital for Wainwright to come up with something to defuse LH batters. Last season LH hitters clobbered Wainwright for a .306 average, .366 OBP, and .475 slugging percentage. That’s an .841 OPS, and a big change from the past. Between 2009 and 2015, LH batters hit .272 / .316 / .423 against Wainwright for an OPS of .739. So the OPS against him escalated by 102 points in ’16.
* He must reestablish authority in two-strike counts. In his previous seven seasons, when Wainwright had two strikes on a hitter, he held them to a .144 batting average with a 44 percent strikeout rate. But when Wainwright had a two-strike count in 2016, opponents hit .191 against him and struck out out 38 percent of the time.
Again, I don’t know what Wainwright can do, or should do, to improve these numbers. But if he succeeds in his fine-tuning project, he’ll be a more imposing pitcher. Maybe not a classic, peak-form pitcher. But he’d come away with enhanced results, and a more dynamic season.
I’m anxious to see how Wainwright fares Tuesday night when he stares in at the Cubs.
And I have absolutely no idea what to expect.
Thanks for reading …