At some point during the early days of the season, fodder surrounding Adam Wainwright turned from ‘he’s no longer the ace’ to ‘he’s not even a fifth starter, put him in the bullpen.’
Even before the season began, opinions were split on whether Wainwright’s sour 2016 was a result of bad defense behind him coupled with a sluggish recovery from the prior year’s Achilles injury, or a murkier omen that Father Time had come for his career.
Regardless of the reason, the results weren’t good. Wainwright’s ERA nearly doubled last year from his next-most recent complete season (2014), from 2.38 to 4.62. His WHIP and home runs allowed ballooned as well; everyone knew Wainwright would need to be better coming into his age-35 season in 2017–but could he be?
The Cardinals didn’t necessarily need Wainwright to be an ace anymore–Carlos Martinez earned the nod for Opening Night against the Cubs. The changing of the guard atop the Cardinals’ rotation could be rather seamless; Wainwright wouldn’t necessarily be an ace in practice any longer, but ceremoniously, he would remain a leader of the staff. With a better showing than 2016, Wainwright would remain a formidable innings eater, still positioned ‘near’ the top of the rotation.
But instead of getting better, conditions deteriorated for Wainwright through the first several weeks of 2017. Through seven starts, Wainwright’s ERA was 6.37, his WHIP a sky-high 1.868. A combination of his own timely hitting and others producing offensively buoyed the Cardinals up to a mediocre 3-4 record across those seven Wainwright starts, which limited the damage in the standings compared to his raw numbers on the mound. That, along with the enormous amount of equity he had built with the organization over the years, could buy him and his manager some time. As long as the Cardinals were competitive in Wainwright's games, Mike Matheny could justify his role in the rotation.
It couldn’t last forever, though. Eventually–whether it would take two more bad starts, a bad month, or two–the Cardinals would have to consider an alternative to running Wainwright out there every fifth day if his ability to get guys out didn’t drastically increase.
Plenty of folks were beyond ready to pull the plug. More forgiving, others declared Wainwright a fifth starter, at best. A Cardinal legend in the making–sixth all-time in wins, second all-time in strikeouts, and so on–Adam Wainwright’s career in St. Louis was at risk for coming to an unceremonious end.
And then, it didn’t.
Instead, Wainwright did what he said all along that he would: he turned it around.
In his last three starts–all of which have been winners for the Cardinals–Wainwright has pitched 7.0, 6.1, and 7.0 innings, allowing a grand total of one (1) earned run. In the process, Wainwright’s hideous 6.37 ERA has transformed into a pretty nice 4.20 mark. Again, this happened over just three starts.
If it’s not a reinvention, it’s at least an intense rededication to every detail that’s given Wainwright the edge through his recent success.
“It’s execution.” Wainwright said after Saturday’s 3-0 over Colorado in an interview airing on Fox Sports Midwest. “It doesn’t matter what you have that day if you don’t execute it. I’m putting more emphasis on executing each and every pitch. I’m not holding much back. I’m just trying to make one pitch at a time until the night is over.”
It sounds trite, but for Wainwright, it’s true: every pitch counts. He can’t afford to hang a curveball–the pitch needs to bite, and stay out of the heart of the zone. His cutter needs precision, movement. More than ever, Wainwright is going to be punished for his mistakes. To avoid making them, he has to execute.
He’s done so splendidly now for three outings in a row. What kind of confidence does that instill in those that were ready to write him off a few weeks ago? The Cardinals are no lock to reach the playoffs, but how many more zeros does Waino have to throw up before you can reasonably expect him to play a positive role in chasing that goal, rather than hindering the team's chances?
Wainwright may not be the same as he once was, but through his last few starts, I’ve seen enough to learn one thing: leave the doubting of Adam Wainwright to somebody else.
He’s more than willing to prove you wrong.