Buffa: Why it's hard to believe in an Adam Wainwright comeback

I don't think Wainwright can make a comeback. The numbers and reality simply don't back it up.

Talking about Adam Wainwright will undoubtedly make the average St. Louis Cardinals fan emotional. After all, he is one of the most tenured Cardinals on the team, one of the best in franchise history, and enters the final year of his contract with suspect projections.

When I think about Wainwright in 2018, I think about Rocky Balboa in the sixth installment of the iconic cinematic series. A punch-drunk boxer trying to step into the ring one more with the younger, faster fighter who knows full well what the outcome will be. I'd love for Wainwright to make the ending of that film — a courageous draw — become reality, but I just don't see it.

Loading ...

The comparison isn't a stretch. Hitters no longer fear Wainwright's stuff. His curveball doesn't buckle knees as often as it once did, and the fastball has lost some zip over the past couple seasons. When he climbs the mound, the objects around him don't slow to a crawl these days. He was once the ace of the rotation; these days, he's barely trying to hang on.

Let's go to the stats, just in case you think I am mixing hyperbole with actual facts. Wainwright's ERA was 4.92 in 2016 and 5.11 in 2017, with the walk rate rising to 3.3 per nine innings in 2017. For some perspective, Wainwright's ERA hadn't crept close to 4.00 since 2012, the year after his Tommy John surgery. The walk rate was his highest since 2007, the first year Wainwright started games in the Majors.

Wainwright's strikeout rate was higher (7.3) than his 20 win season in 2014, but he didn't reach 200 innings in either season, last season being punctured by injury. The fielding independent pitching reached 4.29 in 2017, a high mark for the starter in his career. That's not a good thing. The guy who was once worth 6.1 wins above replacement (WAR) has put up a 2.1 WAR over the past three years.

Everything is up with Wainwright, and the only question is can he bring it all back down.

A five year, $97.5 million contract enters its final season in 2018, with Wainwright set to make $19.5 million to fit in as the fourth or fifth guy in the rotation. Some will say he has earned the right to grab a big payday while offering non-elite performance. There's also the tutelage that Wainwright can offer young minds like Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes. I don't care about the money. I wonder what he has left to offer on the mound.

Loading ...

The Steamer projections system on Fangraphs has Wainwright going 8-9 with a 4.53 xFIP and posting a 1.6 WAR. The strikeout rate would fall, but so would the walk rate, according to the projections. They have him making 24 starts, which is based more on age and declining health than a simple hedge bet. Those are end-of-the-rotation numbers, and they are generous considering where 2017 took him.

The biggest problem with Wainwright is the loss of the curve, which has been his signature pitch since he arrived with the Cardinals in 2005. In 2014, hitters managed one successful month of high average hitting off it (.333 in September). In 2017, hitters had their way with Wainwright's Uncle Charlie in three straight months, smacking it for a .419 average in June.

Opposing hitters slugged Wainwright's curve at a .607 rate last June, and overall, put a hurting on his four-seam fastball all summer long. Everything is slower and more visible these days. Wainwright doesn't have any secrets.

A pitcher's gift is making his pitches seem elusive to hitters swinging an ordinary piece of lumber. Can he make the ball move enough away from their bats or ride up in on their swing just enough? How often can he make them miss? When pure ability runs out, deception must pick up the slack, or else an arm ages rapidly. Wainwright's recent matchups show opponents are more than prepared.

Again, writing about Wainwright stirs the emotions for simple human reasons. We all remember the guy who fooled Carlos Beltran out of his socks back in the 2006 National League Championship Series. We remember Brandon Inge swinging meekly at a cutter to seal the 2006 World Series. We remember Wainwright's series-clinching, big-boy performance against Pittsburgh in the 2014 National League Division Series. Remember the monstrous double fist bump and roar after the final pitch? The sweetness of the memories nearly make the present seem bearable.

I don't think Wainwright can make a comeback. The numbers and reality simply don't back it up. Sure, the man has suffered some bad luck with balls put in play the past two years, but the performance and isolated power results off his best pitches don't lie or leave much to chance. If he manages to win ten games, it will come at the expense of a high ERA and xFIP. Hitters won't suddenly forget how to hit a guy or stop watching tape.

Loading ...

Can Wainwright walk into Wrigley Field or Miller Park and face those high powered lineups with favorable results? Will Mike Matheny resist the urge to let the veteran finish the fifth inning with the tying runs on second and third and two outs, or will he make the right move and go to the pen? More than a few times, the manager let his emotions get in the way of the right call, something that didn't happen with other younger types like Randal Grichuk.

Wainwright is an old lion in this young man's game. There's no doubt about it. If he makes 30 starts and racks up 200 innings, 2018 will be a win for me and should be for the pitcher too. All the Cardinals can hope for from Wainwright is guidance for the young arms and the innings that an inexperienced rotation needs. An offseason surgery should prolong his seasons, but the efficiency remains a huge concern.

Wainwright told the media in January that he stopped reading sports articles about himself, but it was well documented that he took a look at a few in last summer. A lot of athletes say they don't, but the reality is they can't resist.

If No. 50 is indeed reading this, I have one request for 2018: prove me wrong.