There’s a pretty obvious trend happening these days in baseball, and it’s that teams simply refuse to let top homegrown talent reach the open market. This is especially true when it comes to young pitching, where Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez, and Justin Verlander have all each signed extensions for at least $100 million since the beginning of the 2012 season. Clayton Kershaw, expected by most to be retained by the Los Angeles Dodgers before he reaches free agency after 2014, may soon top them all with baseball’s first $200 million pitcher contact.
That’s a whole lot of money given to keep some of the brightest pitching in the game right where it is. And considering the ever-increasing displays of wealth, it might be understandable that the March news out of St. Louis that the Cardinals had extended Adam Wainwright seemed to fly under the radar. After all, his new deal guarantees him a relatively paltry $97.5 million over five seasons starting in 2014, perhaps less than half of what Kershaw is expected to get.
Yet as we head into the final week of the first month of the season, it isn’t Kershaw who has been the most dominant pitcher in baseball, nor Verlander, Darvish, or anyone else: it’s Wainwright, who has struck out an astonishing 37 in 37 1/3 innings against just a single walk. Before he walked Washington’s Bryce Harper in the sixth inning of a 2-0 St. Louis win on Tuesday night, he’d become the first pitcher since the 19th century to strike out more than 30 batters before issuing his first walk of the season.
It’s an incredible accomplishment, yet as with his contract extension, few seem to be taking notice.
Wainwright’s achievements are so impressive not just because of where he is, but because of where he was. On the eve of the 2011 season, Wainwright blew out his right elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of St. Louis’ eventual run to the championship. That he came back at the low end of the usual 12-to-14 month estimate to even make the Opening Day rotation in 2012 was nice enough, but taken at face value, his relatively pedestrian 14-13 record and 3.94 ERA looked like a once-dominant pitcher struggling to return to form after a serious injury.
Wainwright’s consistent production
*Missed 2011 for Tommy John surgery
In truth, it’s really yet another example of why top-level pitching stats like won-loss record and ERA can be more than a little misleading.
As seen in the chart at right, Wainwright’s important peripherals — strikeouts, walks, and home runs per nine innings — were nearly identical in his post-surgery year as they were in his last two healthy seasons, when he had two top-three NL Cy Young finishes. Unlike most pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery, who often struggle with placing the ball even if velocity has returned, Wainwright’s control remained exactly where he’d left it.
If Wainwright did have any post-surgery hangover in 2012, it lasted all of eight starts. After a 7-5 loss in San Francisco on May 17, Wainwright had lost six of his first eight outings with an ugly 5.77 ERA and an uglier .298/.358/.497 batting line against. On May 22, he shut out the San Diego Padres while holding them to just four hits; including that game, he allowed just a .294 on-base percentage along with a 144/36 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his remaining 24 starts. Even with the slow start to his first post-injury season, there’s not a single National League starter — not Kershaw, not Stephen Strasburg, not Cliff Lee — who can boast a better FIP since the start of 2012 than Wainwright’s 2.78. Only Hernandez, at 2.74, tops him in the American League.
If anything, the new Wainwright, boasting a four-seam fastball he rarely threw earlier in his career, is more dangerous than the one who was one of the top pitchers in the league before his elbow gave out. No, he isn’t going to maintain a strikeout rate which is 37 times his walk rate for the entire season, but through five starts — and all necessary warnings about “small sample size” do apply here — Wainwright has increased his swinging-strike percentage to 11.1 percent. That’s not only an excellent rate, but it is well above his previous high as a starting pitcher, 9.6 percent in 2010.
For the Cardinals, Wainwright’s return to form has not only been welcomed, it’s been imperative. Their pitching staff is deep in talent, but it was also nearly as deep in questions headed into the season. Wainwright’s longtime rotation running mate Chris Carpenter was shut down early in spring with a shoulder injury and has likely thrown his last pitch, while lefty Jaime Garcia missed much of last year with arm concerns of his own. Adding to that, reliable Kyle Lohse defected to the rival Milwaukee Brewers, while the bullpen has been in turmoil ever since closer Jason Motte went down with an elbow injury. In large part due to Wainwright — as well as emerging young star Shelby Miller — the Cardinals can boast a major-league best 2.35 rotation ERA.
Wainwright turns 32 years old in August, making him older than any of the other starters who scored huge extensions, and he’s also got the elbow surgery in his recent past, so it’s not difficult to see why his deal wasn’t quite as financially earth-shattering. Yet for the last year, Wainwright has not only been at or near his pre-surgery levels, he’s again been one of the best pitchers in baseball. The Cardinals got their man for tens of millions less than similar pitchers close to free agency, and so far, he’s making that investment look like a wonderful decision.