How Much Will Adam Wainwright’s Victory Lap Contribute to Actual Victories?

Adam Wainwright
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how many photo ops he posed for with the retiring Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, no matter how many cameos he made in the broadcast booth, Adam Wainwright never actually said that 2022 would be his last season in professional baseball. And sure enough, as first reported by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Wainwright will return to the Cardinals in 2023.

Surely, if Wainwright were to pitch anywhere this year, it would be here. The Cardinals, perhaps by dint of producing so many memorable players in this century, do seem to be uniquely sentimental about their old guys. And Wainwright has been pitching there so long he probably still refers to Missouri as “French Louisiana.” Still, this is no mere victory lap. Wainwright is not the all-spinning, all-conquering ace he was 10–12 years ago, but he can still pitch. This past year, in a season during which he turned 41, he finished second on the Cardinals in innings and strikeouts and 13th and 32nd in the entire league in innings and ERA-, respectively. That’s quite impressive for someone who’s older than Blade Runner.

There are two main questions regarding Wainwright’s outlook this year: What can one last season do for him; and what can he do for the Cardinals?

As to the first question, Wainwright’s place in baseball history has been settled for quite some time. While he was one of the premier starting pitchers of his generation and a Cardinals legend, he’s destined to go down as an archetypal Hall of Very Good player. Though Wainwright had four top-three Cy Young finishes in a six-year run from 2009 to ’14 (and he actually got more first-place votes in ’09 than any other pitcher despite finishing third), his best years got eaten by the best years of Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, and Clayton Kershaw.

More troubling to his Hall of Fame case than the lack of individual hardware is the fact that he comes up short on key counting stats: just 195 career wins (take that for what it’s worth), 2,147 strikeouts, and 47.8 WAR. Considering how long Wainwright has hung around, longevity seems an odd stick to beat him with. But he had a relatively late start for a Hall of Fame candidate; he didn’t join the rotation full-time until his age-25 season. He also lost two-thirds of a season to the pandemic and essentially two full prime years to injuries: a torn UCL in 2011, which prevented him from taking part in the Cardinals’ run to the title that year, and a torn Achilles tendon in 2015. He’ll walk away a Cardinals legend, probably get his number retired, and will never have to pay for dinner in St. Louis again, but the Hall of Fame isn’t going to happen.

(Incidentally, Wainwright’s just-shy-of-Hall of Fame-consideration career lines up with my theory that the best color commentators are pitchers with between 40–60 career WAR: David Cone, Orel Hershiser, with Dennis Eckersley and Jim Palmer just close enough to that envelope to rope into the argument.)

The only statistical milestones in reach for Wainwright this year are win-related. If he makes 30 starts again, he’ll surely get over 200 career wins, and he has a very slim but non-zero chance of tying or passing Jesse Haines for second place on the Cardinals’ all-time wins list, at 210. It would take Wainwright at least two seasons to threaten 2,500 career strikeouts, and the Cardinals’ career strikeout king, Bob Gibson, is another 600 strikeouts and change beyond that.

As far as what he can achieve, he’s already been to the postseason nine times, compiling 114 1/3 career innings there, pitched in the World Series twice, and won once. Given that the Cardinals are shaping up to be a good team in a pretty bad division, he could win another ring in 2023, but he doesn’t need it to validate his career. And with more than $160 million in career earnings already behind him, it’s not like he’s going to struggle to make rent if he doesn’t keep pitching.

And as maudlin as people get about old ballplayers at the end of their careers, particularly old Cardinals, it does seem that Wainwright will continue to pitch for no other reason than his own personal fulfillment. He’s got nothing more to prove or achieve, it’s just what he wants to do. Good for him.

Now, the Cardinals wouldn’t bring him back if this were just an excuse for Wainwright to avoid cleaning out the gutters on weekends; they’re a contender, and they need him to produce. So what can they expect?

Wainwright, despite his stature and power curve, was never a flamethrower. But compared to the rest of the league he’s been thoroughly Greinkefied as he’s aged. Some of that is due to natural physical decline, but the effects have been exaggerated by the fact that the league as a whole throws harder and gets more strikeouts than it did 15 years ago.

And while Wainwright was once a big strikeout guy, he’s now operating near the bottom of the league in terms of missing bats.

Even among the 45 qualified starters last year, which removes those circus act relievers who throw 105 and get half their outs by strikeout, Wainwright was 41st in strikeout rate and dead last in whiff rate. Dead. Last.

Fortunately, pitchers who have been around as long as Wainwright are assumed to have a sort of Treebeardian wisdom by which they replace their stuff with savvy and guile. His three most frequently used pitches come with three distinct movement patterns: a sinker (high 80s, arm-side run), a cutter (glove-side break and rise, mid-80s), and the curveball (sharp break downward and to the glove side, low-to-mid 70s). Apparently, that repertoire is pretty hittable, but opponents swung at a lower percentage of his offerings than any other qualified starter last year no matter where he threw the ball; he also had the second-lowest Z-Swing% and the lowest O-Swing% among qualified starters.

The result: Just as he got the lowest percentage of whiffs, he had the highest percentage of called strikes by far among qualified starters. So while the stuff (curveball notwithstanding) was average at best, the results were pretty good: a 96 ERA- over 191 2/3 innings. Which illustrates how Wainwright’s value and his limitations go hand-in-hand.

You need two kinds of pitcher to win in this league: Pitchers who can get you to the playoffs, and pitchers who can pitch effectively once you get there. Wainwright was once the latter but probably isn’t anymore, at least not in an ideal world for the Cardinals. Even this season, he was on the postseason roster but didn’t feature in the Wild Card series, and that’s on a Cardinals team that doesn’t strike many batters out anyway. St. Louis’ starters were 24th in MLB in strikeout rate this year; no other playoff team ranked lower than 17th.

But a pitcher who can throw almost 200 league-average innings is valuable for any team. That’s particularly true when that pitcher doesn’t allow many home runs and has a good defense behind him, as Wainwright does, and even more so when the Cardinals stand to rely on Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz, who have one full healthy season between them since 2019, and had to add two starters at the deadline in July. Wainwright might not have anything left to prove, but he still has quite a bit to give.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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PC1970
3 months ago

In the end, missing those 2 seasons & the pandemic kills his HOF shot. Give him 2 1/2 really good years & he’s at 230+ wins (I know, I know) & possibly mid 50’s WAR. That said, there are hundreds of guys you could say that about, so it’s kind of “is what it is”.

I thought he had more career saves then 3. I remember him as the closer on the 2006 WS winning team & for striking out Carlo Beltran in the NLCS. But,I guess he was called up late in the year as a rookie. His 4 career playoff saves are more than his regular season #.

Lanidrac
3 months ago
Reply to  PC1970

It was actually because the Cardinals didn’t switch to Wainwright as the closer until late in the regular season. He had a great rookie season as a setup man before then.

tdouglas
3 months ago
Reply to  PC1970

I’m not sure there are hundreds of guys who you could give a few lost seasons to that would place them in the HoF, but I could totally be wrong about that. I’m more of a peak guy myself, but he just misses out there — I think he needed one more ace season to really garner votes.