After a surprising and mostly uplifting 2019 performance, Adam Wainwright and Uncle Charlie will return to the Cardinals next season.
Waino and his bewildering, beautiful curve ball — that’s Charlie — will try and work their magic on confused hitters in 2020. Wainwright, who turned 38 on Aug. 30, defied age and expectations this past season. He overcame an extensive injury phase that put his viability, and future in doubt.
The cranky right elbow left him alone in 2019. Gave him some peace. And the return to pitching health gave Wainwright a chance to reestablish himself as an important presence in a durableSt. Louis rotation. He was part of a group that crafted the fifth-best rotation ERA (3.78) in MLB, including a 3.15 ERA (No. 2 overall) after the All-Star break.
Wainwright supplied 31 starts, 171 and ⅔ innings, a 14-10 individual record, and a 4.18 ERA. The Cardinals went 19-12 in his starts. Wainwright was sensational in his two postseason starts, firing up his adoring fans by giving up only three earned runs and flipping 19 strikeouts in 15 innings. He stood tall among the best stories emerging from the Cardinals’ rise to their first division title since 2015.
According to multiple media reports, Wainwright will receive a guaranteed $5 million in 2020, with incentives that could push his total payout to $10 million. That’s pretty much the same arrangement he had with team management in 2019. At 2.2 WAR, Wainwright was a bargain for the Cardinals. All parties are hoping for a happy sequel in 2020.
Let’s review and look ahead… the numbers used here are from a variety of sources including FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Reference and Inside Edge:
The Good: Wainwright had his most innings pitched and highest WAR in a season since throwing 198 and ⅔ innings with 2.8 WAR in 2016 … not counting 2015, when he worked only 28 innings, Waino turned in his best ERA since his 2.38 earned-run average in 2014 … after a rough beginning to the season (4.94 ERA after 11 starts) he had a 3.57 ERA over his final 22 starts including his two postseason starts … with the Cardinals under pressure to capture the division championship Wainwright was at his best in September, shaping a 2.97 ERA over 36 and ⅓ innings … Wainwright’s 2.56 ERA at Busch Stadium was MLB’s eighth-best home ERA among 83 starting pitchers that had at least 70 IP at home this past season… Wainwright was tough on RH batters, holding them to a .310 OBP and .389 slug in 402 plate appearances… and don’t forget about this: LEADERSHIP. And leadership … and leadership … and more leadership … and more leadership on top of that. His positive attitude is good for the mental health of his teammates, especially the younger pitchers who are still developing a big-league mindset.
The Bad: Wainwright had two substantial weaknesses in 2o19. The road. And lefthanded batters … Waino had a 6.22 ERA in 15 road starts. That was tied for the second-worst road ERA in the majors among 78 starting pitchers with a minimum of 70 road innings … on the road, opponents’ batted .299 with a .372 OBP and .493 slug against him … Wainwright gave up a homer every 20.8 at-bats in his road starts and had a poor 1.38 strikeout-walk ratio. (At Busch Stadium he yielded a homer every 46 at-bats and had a terrific 4.79 K-BB ratio.) … as for LH batters: they pounded Wainwright for a .503 slugging percentage and put together an inflated .380 OBP. This was for all games, home and away. The .380 OBP was the highest against any MLB starting pitcher in 2019; the .503 slug was fourth-highest. A bloated 13.1 percent walk rate vs, left-side bats was a big part of the problem, though I suspect that a sizable percentage of the walks were part of his strategy to pick his spots and pitch around dangerous LH hitters… But either way, the .883 OPS by LH hitters vs. Wainwright was the worst allowed by a qualifying big-league starter in 2019.
The Challenge: The fastball isn’t much of a weapon. Wainwright had an average fastball velocity of just 89.9 mph during 2019 season — tied for 9th lowest in MLB among starting pitchers with at least 80 innings and below the league average of 92.8 mph. Hitters jumped on his four-seam fastball for a .440 slugging percentage and hammered his sinker for a .491 slug. Wainwright had an effective cutter at times but still was rocked for a .486 slug when using the pitch. That said, Wainwright had success when running his fastball away from hitters; they batted .170 and slugged just .261 on fastballs located on the outside edge.
The Solution. Or, The Equalizer: Uncle Charlie to the rescue. Here are some cool facts and stats about Waino’s dazzling curve, which served him well by (A) keeping hitters off balance; or (B) unable to deal with the pitch.
♦ Mr. Wainwright threw his curveball 36.8% of the time, the 2nd highest among qualified starters in the MLB and more than double the league rate of 16.6 percent.
♦ Waino had a hitter in a two-strike count, he threw the curve 42.8% of the time. That was the 3rd highest among qualified starters and high above the league rate of 18.8% in two-strike offerings.
♦ When Wainwright went deep into games he relied on the curve more extensively, throwing it 40 percent of the time when going through the lineup the third time in a game. That was the 2nd highest among qualified starters and soared above the league rate of 18.2%.
♦ Wainwright threw his curveball 35% of the time when leading off an inning. The league average was 16.5%. He threw the curve on 33 percent of his first pitches in an bat; league average 18.7.
♦ Wainwright looped in his curveball 38.8% of the time with runners in scoring position; 3rd highest among qualified starters and substantially higher than the league average of 17.3%.
♦ And when behind in the count, Wainwright frequently turned to Uncle Charlie — throwing his curve 32.5% of the time when the hitter had the advantage. That was the highest usage of the curve by an MLB starter when behind in the count in 2019. The league average: 8.4%.
♦ What about those menacing LH batters? Well, they got to see the Waino curve on 40.7 percent of his pitches used against them; that was the highest rate by an MLB starting pitcher against LHB in 2019. LH batters did some damage against Wainwright’s famous curve, slugging .407 with three homers in 135 at-bats. But this requires context; in 2019 LH batters slugged .517 against his cutter, .513 against his sinker, and .491 against his four-seam fastball.
♦ When Waino threw a two-strike curve to a LH batter in 2019, they hit .158 with a .237 slugging percentage. Against all hitters, Wainwright gave up a .129 average and .184 slug on two-strike curves.
This Man Knows How To Pitch, Period: The curve was an essential part of Wainwright’s brilliant strategy in 2019. Hitters wanted to mash his low-velo fastball, and took a lot of pitches while waiting for it. But Wainwright often won the mind-game battle.
When behind in the count, with hitters sitting in his fastball in anticipation, Waino threw off-speed pitches 64.4% of the time. That was the second highest rate by a MLB starter and more than double the league average of 36.7%. And if Wainwright could get the hitters to take enough pitches to set up a two-strike count, well, say hello to his buddy Uncle Charlie.
I Love This Stat: Wainwright recorded 40 of his 62 strikeouts (64.5%) vs. LHB on breaking balls this season, tied for 6th highest among qualified starters and well above the league average of 38%. The same applies to RH batters; 57 of his 91 strikeouts (62.6%) came on breaking balls — league average 42.6%.
The Future: Wainwright knows he must prove he can do it again. That’s just how it goes for a starting pitcher who will celebrate his 39th birthday late next season.
Or, as our friend Craig Edwards wrote at FanGraphs:
“Wainwright’s 2019 season isn’t a guarantee for success in 2020. In the last five years, the only pitchers who were at least 38 years old to pitch more than 100 innings at an above-average level were Rich Hill in 2018, Bartolo Colon in 2015 and 2016, and A.J. Burnett in 2015. Wainwright’s arm might not cooperate next season like it did during this one, but he earned another spot at the back-end of the Cardinals rotation as he tries to help them bring home their eighth division title in his time in St. Louis.”
Baseball Reference Projection for 2020: A record of 11-9 with a 4.65 ERA in 149 innings.
Baseball Prospectus Forecast for 2020: A total of 28 starts, 174 innings, 3.84 ERA.
Thanks for reading…