In 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals won 100 games on the back of a pitching staff that, by the measure of stranding baserunners, had one of the most historically good—or lucky, depending on how you see it—seasons ever. To that, the club added Mike Leake and, in effect, Adam Wainwright, who would be healthy again after missing nearly all of the 2015 season.
Yet, while the club’s offense has been better than expected—St. Louis ranks first in the NL in home runs and in OPS—the record sat at just .500 entering play Thursday. That’s because the club added Mike Leake and, in effect, Adam Wainwight, who has been healthy again after missing nearly all of the 2015 season.
Yup, it’s the upgrades who are leading the regression. Wainwright in particular has been dreadful. When he hasn’t been showing off his hitting skills , he has allowed four homers in 33 2/3 innings (after allowing just 10 in the 255 innings split he threw in 2014 and 2015). He has an ERA close to 7, a FIP close to 5, and just 4.8 K/9—the sixth-lowest in baseball, minimum 20 innings. Overall, the club’s starting rotation has a 4.38 ERA and just 7.0 K/9 as a collective this year, after posting a 2.99 ERA with 7.9 K/9 last season. What has happened to the Cardinals’ erstwhile ace?
The problem relates to what had historically been his greatest weapon. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leads us to the biggest question of all: What do Adam Wainwright’s curveball and a chained-up Chihuahua have in common? All bark, no bite.
The curve has long been Wainwright’s out pitch, with a career whiff rate of 17 percent—and, with two strikes, 21 percent. This year, the whiff rate is at 9 percent overall, and 11 percent with two strikes.
Without that as a putaway pitch, Wainwright has been unable to rack up strikeouts, and has had to lean more heavily on other pitches. Worse, batters are batting .351 on all of his non-curveball offerings, which has led to… more curveballs. Which have led to fewer whiffs. And there you have the anatomy of a terrible first month.
It’s a bit of a mystery why, all of the sudden, batters aren’t getting fooled at the plate by Wainwright’s stuff. Here’s what we do know: In his fourth start of the season last year, Wainwright tore the Achilles in his left leg, and wouldn’t return until a brief cameo in relief in September and October. He’s missed a season before, and it’s worth pointing out that after returning from Tommy John in 2012 he was awful in his first seven starts. He had a 6.16 ERA with an opponent OPS of .867, and hitters had an average of .333 against his sinker, cutter, and changeup. On the other hand, he struck out more than a batter per inning during that stretch, walked more than one batter in only two of those starts, and largely settled down once the BABIP storm blew past. Still, while I don’t want to conclude that this rough patch is something he just experiences after a long layoff, there is at the very least some precedent.
I spoke with a former scout to get the opinion of someone whose eye is specially trained for these kinds of things, and he confirmed my suspicions—Wainwright’s left leg looks stiff when he’s landing on it. That’s not all that surprising, considering that’s the leg he hurt last year. I’m no doctor and I’m not playing one on the internet, but it’s not unfair to ask if his rush back to the mound at the end of last season—or, simply, his age, or the nature of the injury—could be playing a part in how well he healed.
But that’s not the only thing that’s different. Wainwright’s release point looks higher in the short clip as well, and the numbers show that he’s really struggled to stay consistent with his mechanics. He’s been unusually all over the map with his release on the curve this season versus seasons of the past.
The silver lining here is that these might be fixable issues. We’re not talking about a power pitcher losing velocity or a guy with shoulder problems. Wainwright might be nearly 35, but he’s sturdy, athletic and has quality secondary stuff—basically built to pitch well into his late 30s. Unfortunately, by the time he settles in and begins pitching well, the Cards could be 10 games back in the National League Central division. Heck, the way the Cubs are playing, the Cards could be 10 games back by the time Wainwright takes the mound next.
There have been few things more obviously wrong about the Cardinals this year than Wainwright, but there are probably better places to focus. Wondering if Randal Grichuk is showing his true colors after a head-scratching rookie season last year? Yeah, that’s a fair concern. Or thinking about what the hell has happened to Kolten Wong? A very real apprehension. But Wainwright? His return is still too young to get all worked up over.