In his latest grim beatdown by an opponent, Adam Wainwright was flattened by the Royals on Friday night. This was the saddest start of them all for Waino to this point of 2023, but don’t expect anything to change. Manager Oli Marmol is hopelessly devoted to the 18-year veteran.
In an unsettling 12-8 loss at Kansas City, Wainwright lasted only 11 batters and 39 pitches. He retired three Royals while getting bludgeoned for nine hits, eight earned runs, and two homers. The Cardinals offense tried to recover from the early trauma but couldn’t get there.
Wainwright’s season ERA spiked to 8.78. In his last seven starts Wainwright has been battered for a 14.87 ERA, and the Cardinals went 1-6 in those games. This is as ugly as it is sad for a Cardinal legend who turns 42 on Aug. 25.
Marmol seemed troubled after Friday’s thrashing, and tried to give the gathered media the impression he was contemplating Wainwright’s removal from the rotation. But of course, the manager’s words were meaningless. Sure enough, on Sunday morning’s weekly interview with Tom Ackerman on KMOX, Marmol said Wainwright would make his next scheduled start on Thursday against the Mets at Busch Stadium.
Frankly, any notion that Marmol would pull the plug on Wainwright was (and is) as ludicrous as believing the Cardinals can make a run to the NL Central title. Losing credibility doesn’t matter to Marmol; the priority is accommodating Wainwright. And team ownership-management wants it that way.
I’ve seen folks mention that Marmol doesn’t want to embarrass Wainwright because he has too much respect for Waino’s career and what he’s done for the Cardinals.
But why should that matter if Wainwright is willing to embarrass himself?
And while Wainwright has done a lot for the community over the years, so have other Cardinals and Blues and other St. Louis athletes. You don’t pick a lineup, align a starting rotation or choose a goaltender based on community service.
This past weekend Twitter turned into a lively debate platform for Cardinals fans. The pro-Waino loyalists went back and forth with the Waino separatists.
I’m on record – multiple times – writing and saying that Wainwright should continue pitching to the finish line in 2023. The Cardinals fell out of postseason contention before the All-Star break, and there’s no penalty for having Wainwright handle his remaining 2023 assignments before retiring.
But certainly a case can be made for getting him out of there … just as there are reasons to stay with him. It really depends on your perspective. Though it doesn’t change my own view, I wanted to look at each side of the argument because I see good points being made all over the spectrum of public opinion. I’m not one of the extremist-type people who refuse to acknowledge that you can learn something from those who hold an opposite viewpoint.
THE CASE FOR KEEPING WAINO IN THE ROTATION
1. The Cardinals are done. They’re 52-66, a dozen games out of first place, and have a 0.1 percent chance of winning the division and a 0.3% shot at making the playoffs. So why pull Wainwright now? What I’m about to say seems cold, but it’s absolutely the truth: if Wainwright is willing to endure more humiliation the rest of the way – and he is – then let him ride.
2. Potential draft-slot benefit: This is cynical but correct: by keeping Wainwright in the rotation, the Cardinals would enhance their probability of ending up with an early pick – perhaps fifth or sixth overall – in the 2024 MLB draft. The Cardinals are 5-10 in Wainwright’s 15 starts this season and have won only two of his last 11 undertakings.
3. Considering the magnitude of his career for St. Louis, he’s earned the privilege of pitching his way into retirement rather than being relegated to the bullpen or being set aside as a pitcher that would only be used when the Cardinals are getting drubbed and are out of a game. He wants to finish with 200 career wins. He needs two more. Give him that chance and hope that the offense can generate a couple of 10-run performances on the days that he starts.
4. Wainwright isn’t blocking another pitcher from receiving a major-league opportunity to earn a rotation spot for 2024. Because of Zack Thompson this point is becoming increasingly cloudy, but for now it still sticks. That said, if the Cardinals want to audition Z. Thompson as a starting pitcher, they should have prepared the lefty accordingly all season — and can still put him in the rotation spot currently held by Dakota Hudson. UPDATE: On Monday afternoon around 3:30 p.m. Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak announced that Steven Matz was placed on the IL with a strained lat muscle. According to Mozeliak, Matz will be on “no-throw” status for three weeks (at least.) After that, who knows? I’d be surprised to see Matz back in action before the end of the ’23 season. But the injury opens a spot for Thompson, and Waino stays in the rotation.
5. The Last Hurrah: Even if it comes down to the final hours of the regular season – Oct. 1 at home vs. the Reds – Cardinal fans would put the disappointment of 2023 aside and savor the experience of watching Wainwright bag No. 200 on his last day wearing the Birds on the Bat. In part, Cardinals ownership-management brought Wainwright back for another year because he was good for business, and the team could market and generate extra revenue for celebrating The Hero Tour 2023. It hasn’t turned out as well as hoped – that’s an understatement – but in the late stages of the campaign there’s value in having Wainwright on the mound at Busch.
REASONS FOR PULLING WAINWRIGHT FROM THE ROTATION
1. Wainwright has the worst ERA (8.78), the worst strikeout rate (11.8%) and worst swing-and-miss rate (5.3%) of any MLB starter that’s worked at least 66 innings this season. And no starting pitcher has allowed a higher batting average (.375) onbase percentage (.422), slugging percentage (.618) and OPS (1.040.)
Among Cardinal pitchers that have made at least 15 starts and worked a minimum 66 innings in a season, Wainwright’s 8.78 ERA would be the worst by a Cardinal starter during the Modern Era, which began in 1900. (This, based on research via StatHead and Baseball Reference.)
Since 1900, only two MLB pitchers that had a minimum 15 starts and 66 innings were burned for an ERA higher than 8.78 in a season: Steve Blass, 9.85 in 1973 and Tod Van Poppel, 9.06 in 1996.
Based only on merit and quality of performance only, a team shouldn’t stay with a starting pitcher that currently has the third-worst ERA in a season since the turn of the 20th century. Yes, it’s that bad.
2. Wainwright’s early-game implosions aren’t fair to his teammates. If the object here is to win games, the goal is destined for failure when a pitcher gets avalanched in the first couple of innings. Wainwright has a 9.60 ERA in the first inning this season – and a combined 10.99 ERA in the first two innings.
In his last seven starts, Wainwright has a first-inning ERA of 14.14 – and over the first two innings he’s been blasted for 27 earned runs in 12 and ⅔ innings for a 19.18 ERA. In the first two innings of his last seven starts, Wainwright has been pummeled for a .522 average and 1.367 OPS. Wainwright’s early meltdowns put an extra burden on the bullpen to fill a lot of innings.
3. Even in a lost year, a franchise that’s loaded with a strong winning tradition shouldn’t abandon the desire to win games. The Cardinals are 5-10 in Wainwright’s starts. But he put together some competitive starts early in the season, and at that point the Cardinals had no urgent reason to replace him. But the situation has turned drastically poor over the last two months. As mentioned earlier, the Cardinals are 1-6 in Waino’s last seven starts since June 17. But when another pitcher starts a game, the Cardinals are 23-17 since June 18. Over that time Waino has a 14.87 ERA, and the other starters have combined for a 3.58 ERA. Wainwright is responsible for allowing 31 percent of the runs scored against a STL starter since June 18.
4. Hurt feelings shouldn’t matter in major-league ball. In 1975, Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst put Bob Gibson in the bullpen after his ERA inflated to 5.13 in his 14 starts. This would turn out to be Gibson’s final season. Gibson of course is the greatest starting pitcher in Cardinals franchise history. Wainwright, in my opinion, is the second-greatest starter in franchise history. If Gibson can be demoted to the bullpen then it’s hardly cruel and unreasonable to do the same with Wainwright.
And what about the bullpen? Couldn’t Wainwright pick up two wins as a reliever to reach 200 in his career? Waino’s loss of velocity and swing-and-miss capability doesn’t profile well for a relief role but St. Louis relievers have been credited with a combined 16 wins this season. So there’s a chance that Wainwright could gain the two victories he needs for 200 as a bullpen guy. As a reliever in 1975, Gibson got into only eight games but did come out of it with an extra career win.
5. How much does 200 really matter? As we know, Wainwright wants to finish his career with 200 victories. It’s a tidy, good-looking number that has symbolic appeal. But if Wainwright gets 200, he’d still rank at where he is right now – tied for No. 100 in MLB history with 198 wins. He wouldn’t move up in the rankings by winning two more games. Winning 200 games doesn’t ensure a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. According to the research I did via StatHead, the Hall of Fame does not include 63 pitchers who won 200+ games during their careers. Several on that list – including Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke – will be voted in when eligible. One notable example of a non-Cooperstown case is Tommy John, who won 288 games and has 17.5 career WAR (62.1) than Wainwright (44.6)
In the Hall of Fame Value standard created by Bill James, Waino has a career score of 360.4. And for James, the standard for clearance into Cooperstown is 500. Wainwright will fall well short of that. Waino wouldn’t get to 500 points, anyway. But he came into the season with just under 370 points and the poor 2023 has subtracted points from his Hall of Fame case.
Wainwright’s 44.6 WAR (Baseball Reference version) ranks 151st all-time among MLB starters. There’s a lengthy list of non-Cooperstown starting pitchers that have more career WAR than Waino including Curt Schilling, Kevin Appier, Chuck Finley, Orel Hershiser, Dave Stieb, Frank Tanana, Rick Reuschel, Steve Rogers, Andy Pettitte, Luis Tiant, Vida Blue, Brad Radke, Javier Vazquez, Ron Guidy, Mickey Lolich, Jerry Koosman, David Wells, Dennis Martinez, Jimmy Key, Kenny Rogers, Kevin Brown and Johan Santana.
In fairness, Waino’s 44.6 bWAR is higher than that of Hall of Fame starting pitchers Jack Morris, Jack Chesboro, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Lefty Gomez, Jesse “Pop” Haines and Rube Marquard.
Wainwright’s pursuit of 200 is personally meaningful to him, and the number would be another validation of his prominent career. But winning 200 career games has little if any influence on his Hall of Fame candidacy. Wainwright’s place in Cardinals history is secure. He can win 198 games, or 200 games, and Cardinal fans will love him just as much either way. And his long list of achievements on behalf of Cardinals baseball will always be admired. A historically brutal season at the end doesn’t change that. There’s a long list of prominent MLB starting pitchers who bombed out in their final seasons, and the late-career failures are soon forgotten.
MY BOTTOM LINE
I’m still fine with Wainwright staying in the rotation. Cardinals’ ownership-management largely went to sleep last offseason, failed to improve the pitching staff, and the decision to bring Wainwright back was rooted in the overall complacency that undermined this team in 2023.
The total collapse of Waino’s pitching late in 2022 was an obvious warning sign Cardinals ownership-management chose to ignore. For the fans who are peeved at Wainwright — well, you should be mad at ownership-management for wanting to go with a Hero Tour season because of the business-bonanza potential. At least Wainwright got a raise out of it with a $17 million salary for 2023, though $10 million of that is deferred.
Ownership-management wallowed in complacency, lowered the standards and adjusted the priorities in 2023. It makes me wonder: how long will the Cardinals be paying for that?
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts a weekday sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
The “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and B. Miklasz is available at 590thefan.com, the 590 the fan app or your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus or Bill James Online.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.