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Waino Is An All-Time Great Cardinal, but Greatness Only Lasts in Our Memories

There are three sets of numbers that define Adam Wainwright.

1. The first brings the prestige of his career into perspective, and reminds us that we’ve been privileged to watch one of the greatest pitchers in franchise history. And Wainwright definitely qualifies as one of the very best. 

Wainwright had 147 wins, No. 5 all-time among all of the men that pitched for the Cardinals. His 3.30 ERA and  .636 winning percentage rank 6th. He’s 7th for most innings pitched. And only Bob Gibson struck out more hitters than Wainwright. If you narrow the time frame to the post-expansion era (1962-present) Waino is No. 1 in winning percentage;  is 3rd in victories behind Gibson and Bob Forsch; ranks 3rd for most innings behind Gibson and Forsch, and is No. 2 in ERA and strikeouts — with only Gibson ahead of him. And we’ll never forget the rookie closer who put away three postseason opponents, getting the final, series-clinching out in the NLDS, the NLCS, and the World Series in October 2006.  You can fit Wainwright now; he’s red-jacket Cardinals Hall of Famer.

2. The second accounting tells us another version of the oldest story in sports: that of the  inevitable decline for athletes who stay too long. No matter how great a pitcher is, no matter how many seasons he’s dominated hitters, he won’t be able to conquer the blight of age. Nothing personal. It’s just life. And no one beats the aging curve. 

Wainwright pitched only 28 innings in 2015 because of a ruptured Achilles. Since the start of the 2016 season, among the 60 MLB pitchers that have made at least 60 starts, Wainwright ranks No. 52 in ERA (4.77), No. 55 in strikeout-walk ratio (2.31), No. 48 in opponents’ slugging percentage (.445), No. 52 in opponents’ OPS (.792), No. 56 in walks-hits per inning (1.46) and is No. 55 in base runners allowed per 9 innings (13.47). Wainwright also has the sixth-worst swing-and-miss rate (19.3%) and hitters have put the ball in play against him on 43.2 percent of their swings, which puts him 53rd among the 60 starters.

Wainwright ranked high on the leader board in one category: He’s 11th with a run-support average of 5.64 — and that’s just the average number of runs scored on his behalf while he’s in the game … not the runs that go on the board after departs a start.

That generous run support — and not the absurd baseball myth-making theories from Waino apologists who insists “he just knows how to win” — has kept his record looking good despite a lot of bad pitching. Since the start of 2016, when the Cardinals have won a game started by Wainwright, they have a run-support average of 7.16 runs — the second-highest run supply given to any MLB starter over that time.

3.  Now, the expanding list of injuries.  It’s been one thing after another.  The combination of poor pitching and frequent physical breakdowns would put any pitcher’s career in doubt. And this pitcher will be 37 at the end of August. 

In addition to the Achilles surgery in ’15, there was elbow cleanup surgery following the 2017 season… then a strained hamstring that put him on the DL late in this year’s spring training… then elbow inflammation in late April, and another DL stay. And then, in his first start back, Wainwright hurt the elbow again during his final warmup pitches on the mound at Petco Park in San Diego, couldn’t throw with sharp bite or meaningful velocity, and needed 79 pitches to get seven outs. He walked six of the 15 Padres that had plate appearances against him, and gave up three hits and two earned run in his 2.1 innings. Another elbow-DL scenario is likely.

Does anyone of sound mind really believe that this is just some unfortunate phase, a few bouts of bad luck, and that everything will be fine soon? I suppose we have the option to continue  fooling ourselves, but I’m thinking it’s time to be grownups about this.

I’m not trying to be cold here — who doesn’t love Adam Wainwright? — but we knew this time was coming. We realized it was unavoidable. And it’s best to deal with the reality in a straightforward manner instead of spinning and concocting another round of fantasies.

What’s happening to Adam Wainwright happened to Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Walter Johnson, Randy Johnson. It happened to Tim Lincecum, and Chris Carpenter. And on a personal note, it happened to Jim Palmer, my favorite pitcher of all time. In fact, I was assigned to write the story of Palmer’s retirement, which came abruptly during the early part of the 1984 season. I sat in the dugout next to Palmer about an hour before he took the field, dressed like a businessman, to be saluted by the crowd. As he sat in the dugout and waited, Palmer turned pensive, and I saw a tear drop rolling down his face. I’ll never forget that. Seeing this man, one of my baseball heroes, knowing that it was over for him. You don’t think I was sad that day? But I knew: physical greatness doesn’t last. Nothing lasts forever except the memories of greatness.

A brief recap:

  • Since signing a five-year contract extension before the 2014 season, Wanwright had one terrific season, in ’14.
  • His 2015 was virtually rubbed out by the Achilles injury.
  • Wainwright showed signs of decline in 2016 with a 4.62 ERA, an increased home-run rate, and a depressed strikeout-walk ratio,  2.73, his poorest since 2007.
  • In 2017, the ERA blew up to 5.11, and his K-BB ratio flattened out to a career low 2.13. With the elbow flaring up, and cooling his velocity, Wainwright could only work 123.1 innings in ’17.
  • In four starts and 18 innings this season, Wainwright has a 16 percent walk rate, a 1.07 strikeout-walk ratio, has gotten pounded for an average of 2.27 homers per 9 innings and is lugging around a fielding independent ERA of 5.49.

Everything on Wainwright’s trend line is pointing down.

And the start to his 2018 season is even more troubling. His contract expires after the season, and the Cardinals have multiple young starters ready to plug into the big-league rotation including Jack Flaherty and (in two-plus weeks) Alex Reyes. John Gant can start in the majors, but  doesn’t have swing-and-miss stuff, and that’s a potentual problem. Others prospects are close, including lefty Austin Gomber (who is in a bit of a rut at Triple A  Memphis) and improving right-hander Dakota Hudson.

The Cardinals have steadily touted their player-development program, pointed to their replenished farm system, and expressed considerable excitement over the wave of young pitching that’s approaching St. Louis. Well, what will it be then? If Flaherty and (soon) Reyes are ready to go, then there’s absolutely no reason to hold them back. And it would be wrong — not to mention contradictory — to push either one of these talented young starters away from the big-league rotation to accommodate Wainwright.

What’s the purpose here? If the primary objective is winning, then you go with the five best starters. And if you’re going to brag about your heralded pitching prospects, you can’t block them from the major-league rotation when they’re more viable and physically capable than Wainwright.

The Cardinals can’t have it both ways here. You can’t tell us that you’re trying to win and then make decisions that reveal an opposite truth. This organization has a charitable arm. It’s called Cardinals Care. On the field, nothing should interfere with the goal of maximizing the team’s chances for success — and the planned infusion of fresh pitching talent can help the Cardinals return to the postseason to compete for championships.

If his Cardinals’ career is coming to an end, I hope Wainwright can go out on his terms … but only to a point. If Reyes and/or Flaherty take the ball and do a good job, this team must stay the course. No player or pitcher, not even Adam Wainwright, can stand in the way of progress. And manager Mike Matheny can’t be allowed to send Wainwright out there to pitch when (A) he’s physically diminished; and (B) there are attractive, preferable alternatives.

Matheny can’t be trusted to make sound judgment on Wainwright. The manager sent Wainwright out to start games last summer when Wainwright’s elbow was hurting, and he couldn’t pump fastballs harder than 85, 86 mph. And Sunday in San Diego, everyone in the place could see that Wainwright was impaired and had nothing — but Matheny let this travesty continue into the third inning, despite having Gant in reserve and ready to pitch as insurance for Waino.

I doubt that Matheny can help himself here. If Wainwright is able to pitch again — even if it means pitching terribly — Matheny will find it difficult to  put his personal feelings for Wainwright aside and do what’s best for the team. If the past means anything, Matheny will favor Wainwright even if it’s the wrong decision.

Question: Is there an adult in the house who will make an tough adult decision?

The observation I’m about to share doesn’t match Wainwright’s current situation, but there is a parallel. In 2006, starting pitchers Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver came up large during the Cards’ underdog run to the World Series title. In the ’06 season, Weaver and Suppan combined to make nine starts and a 3.02 ERA. The Cardinals went 6-3 in their nine starts. Suppan kept the Cardinals alive in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS at Shea Stadium, battling through 7 innings and working out of jams to hold the Mets to one run. With the Cardinals clinching the World Series Game 5, Weaver started, pitched eight innings and was scratched for only one run by Detroit.

Suppan and Weaver were eligible for free agency after the season. The Cardinals made no effort to re-sign either right-hander. It was time for a generational shift, and the Cardinals wanted to clear a rotation spot for one of their best and brightest young pitchers: Adam Wainwright. That’s how it goes it sports. Now, and always.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Listen – Mark Saxon on if we’ve seen Waino’s last start as a Cardinal