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Cardinals Pitcher Adam Wainwright and the Confusion of Misleading Statistics

Adam Wainwright is having an odd, interesting season. The first half of his 2017 campaign was filled with contradictions and confusion.

Wainwright wasn’t as good as his handsome 10-5 Won/Lost record would indicate. The folks that mistakenly believe that all wins are created equal won’t like the truth. Though Wainwright has been credited with 10 wins, the total is misleading. I’m glad he has 10 wins; any success for the classy and competitively wired Wainwright makes me happy.

That said, I try to do an honest job in analyzing performance. And Wainwright’s 10 wins aren’t an accurate reflection of how he’s pitched. His 10 wins aren’t as worthy as, say, Max Scherzer’s 10 wins. And by the way, I’m not a “Win” hater. I don’t want to abolish the statistic. But individual win totals can be terribly misleading, so I don’t automatically go to win totals as the defining measure of a pitcher’s quality.

If you think my goal here is to discredit Wainwright, that’s incorrect.

His win total may be misleading, but so is his 5.20 baseball-card ERA.

If Waino doesn’t “deserve” 10 wins, then he sure as hell doesn’t deserve a 5.20 ERA.

That’s the contradiction.

Both of the things I’m putting out here — pitcher wins, and standard earned-run average — aren’t accurate measure of his work. That 10-5 record is glossy but a little hollow. But on the other hand, he’s much better than his baseball-card ERA.

A Closer Look at Wainwright’s 10 Credited Wins

As mentioned, Wainwright has a 10-5 record. And in Waino’s 18 starts, the Cardinals are 11-7. And though Wainwright has pitched well in many of the starts that have contributed to a team victory, he’s also benefited from extremely generous run support.

In the 11 wins started by by Wainwright, the Cardinals have scored an average of 6.55 runs while he was on the mound. (The run support average, or RSA, does not include the team’s runs scored after the pitcher departs the game.)

In the team’s 11 wins with Waino, he’s delivered six quality starts. Meaning that the Cardinals have won five of the 11 despite the absence of a quality start by Wainwright. He’s been exceptionally well in many of those victories, but he struggled to go consistently deep into games. Wainwright lasted fewer than six innings in four of the 11 winning starts.

Overall the Cardinals have scored an average of 5.85 runs for Waino in his 18 starts. Among pitchers that have made at least 12 starts this season, Wainwright’s 5.85 RSA is eighth-highest in the National League, and 17th-highest in MLB.

And then there’s Carlos Martinez. Granted, he closed the unofficial first half of the season with two consecutive lousy starts. But even with that factored in, Tsunamy’s 6-8 record is comically misleading.

The Cardinals have scored an average of 3.95 runs per Martinez start this season; only five NL starting pitchers have received worse run support than Martinez.

The Cards have lost 10 games started by Martinez this season; they averaged 2.95 runs of support for him in the 10 defeats. On four occasions Martinez supplied a quality start — with a 2.19 ERA over the four — only to see the Cards lose those games.

A Look at Wainwright’s Misleadingly High ERA 

Among the 37 qualifying MLB starters in 2017, Wainwright’s 5.20 baseball-card ERA ranks 33rd. That looks bad. And if we include the American League, Waino’s 5.20 ERA is tied for 64th among 73 qualifying starters. More bad.

Well, that bloated 5.20 ERA is mostly bogus. It’s far from being precise in assessing Wainwright’s performance.

Wainwright’s Fielding Independent ERA, or FIP, is a more respectable and authentic 3.81.

The FanGraphs version of FIP is based on walks, hit-by-pitch, strikeouts and homers — the four areas that a pitcher actually controls. Defense is removed from the formula.

Wainwright’s 3.81 FIP ranks 15th in the NL among qualifying starters.

Wainwright’s FIP is solid for a few reasons:

— His average of 8.26 strikeouts per nine innings would be his best rate since 2012.

— His 2.70 strikeout-walk ratio isn’t robust but would be Waino’s best in a full season since 2014.

— He’s been touched for a relatively low average of 0.93 homers per nine innings; that’s the 12th lowest HR rate against NL starters.

So why is there such a discrepancy between Wainwright’s basic ERA and his FIP?

— A few rotten starts have inflated his basic ERA.

— The beauty of FIP is that it removes defense from the equation, and we know about the erratic nature of the Cards defense.

— Wainwright is battered by brutal batted-ball luck. Opponents have a .347 average against him on balls in play. Not only is that tied for the highest BIP average against a NL starter this season, but it’s 50 points higher than the MLB-wide average.  It’s a glaring outlier, and his luck should improve the rest of the way.

— Wainwright’s strand rate of 67.4 percent is about five percent lower than the MLB average for starters; only four NL starting pitchers have a lower left-on-base rate lower than Waino. His strand rate was influenced by the terrible batted-ball luck. When Wainwright had runners in scoring during the first half, the opponents’ batting average on balls in play is .370 — or some 46 points higher than the overall NL batted-ball average of .324 with RISP.

— The St. Louis bullpen has allowed 8 of 16 inherited runners to score after coming in to relieve  Wainwright.

This season I’ve made the mistake of placing too much importance on Wainwright’s basic ERA. And while I’ve noted his much lower FIP at times, I haven’t  put enough emphasis on it.

I think we can all agree on this: Wainwright has cranked out a quality start in seven of his last 11 games — with a 3.72 FIP — and is trending in a positive direction.  Earlier this season I was a little quick to link Wainwright’s age to his pitching troubles. He’ll be 36 at the end of August and is on the other side of his career-peak years. But Wainwright is still capable of being an asset.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie