While doing some reading earlier this year, my eyes were drawn to a choice quote from a wonderful and legendary old pitcher, the great Satchel Paige. I made sure to mark it and keep it.
“Work like you don’t need the money.
Love like you’ve never been hurt.
Dance like nobody’s watching.”
It makes me think of Adam Wainwright, who makes regular-season career start No. 353 for the Cardinals tonight in Milwaukee. And of course he will connect with catcher Yadier Molina, for their 300th start as baseball brothers. Wainwright and Molina are a living history museum, the doors wide open.
When Wainwright is in his zone, it’s a magical experience. He isn’t thinking about pitching for money. He doesn’t hold back his love for the game, even though he’s been hurt many times — physically and emotionally — during his 16 years in the majors. And while Wainwright doesn’t literally dance on the mound, he moves to his own rhythm, teeming with joy and exuberance.
Absolutely: Wainwright is serious about pitching and competing and coming through for his teammates. But does any player have more fun than Waino? I don’t think so. That must be part of the reason why he stays forever young. At age 40 he isn’t supposed to be bouncing around and putting hitters down as he did during his career-peak phase. He’s supposed to be slowing down, hanging on, and coming to terms with the inevitable demise of an extensive but expiring pitching career. An outstanding career. But all things must pass.
Wainwright made his big-league debut on Sept. 11, 2005 at the age of 24. That was 15 years, 11 months and 24 days ago. The average MLB career lasts 2.7 years. I guess there aren’t any clocks in the Wainwright household. If there are clocks, they’re synchronized by the decade. He is seemingly unaware of time. Or he disregards it.
“Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter,” Satchel Paige once said.
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”
Only several days past his 40th birthday, Wainwright is composing one of the most exquisite seasons of his esteemed career.
Let’s pause to appreciate his value to the Cardinals in 2021.
The Cards have used 12 different starting pitchers this season. Dakota Hudson has missed the entire season (so far) as he rehabs his way back from elbow surgery. Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Carlos Martinez, Kwang Hyun Kim and Wade LeBlanc have collectively spent 363 days on the Injured List — and that total would be 519 days if you include Hudson’s time on the IL. The front office brought in J.A. Happ and Jon Lester at the July 30 deadline, and they’ve combined for 12 starts. Several starters — John Gant, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Johan Oviedo and Jake Woodford — were removed from the rotation for non-injury reasons.
The one constant is Wainwright. Though Waino is vaccinated and never contracted COVID-19, he was placed on COVID-19 injured list for several days early in the season. He wanted and needed the time to care for his wife Jenny and five children who were stricken with the infectious disease. But Wainwright didn’t really miss a start, or a beat. He will make his 27th start of the season Friday night, and no MLB pitcher has started more than 28 games this year.
— Wainwright leads STL starters in wins (13), innings (162.2 and rising), ERA (2.97), quality starts (18), strikeouts and WAR (3.5).
— The 2021 Cardinals are 16-10 in Wainwright’s starts and 52-54 in their other games.
— Since June 1 the Cardinals are 12-4 in Wainwright’s 16 starts, and 26-36 otherwise. Waino has an individual 10-3 record and a 2.29 ERA in his 16 starts over that time.
— The time frame is important. Wainwright’s strength of stability and pitching excellence clearly made a difference in reducing the impact of the damage caused by Flaherty’s abrupt departure to the IL (oblique) after his May 31 start. Mikolas (forearm) already was absent from the rotation, and other starting-pitcher injuries and detours surfaced — including Flaherty’s second (and current) stay on the IL. With the considerable boost provided by the team’s 12-4 record in his 16 starts since June 1, Wainwright prevented the Cardinals from crumbling away in a total collapse.
— As the Cardinals pushed their way into wild-card contention, they followed their leader. Wainwright. He goes into Friday’s appointment at Milwaukee with a streak of eight consecutive quality starts. His ERA through this stretch is a glistening 1.55, and he’s averaged 7.25 innings per start.
— Wainwright’s 1.97 ERA since the All-Star break leads a STL rotation that ranks 8th in the majors with a 3.77 ERA since play resumed on July 16. And that’s kept the Cardinals moving forward with a 24-18 record since the break.
— On five different occasions this season, Wainwright’s pitching has terminated a team losing streak of two or more games. And two of the streaks had lasted five or more games.
Wainwright’s name hasn’t surfaced in conversations about the 2021 NL Cy Young award, and hopefully that will change. I don’t think his season has matched that of the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler and a couple of others. But as 2021 moves into September, Wainwright’s season warrants national notice, acclaim and serious consideration for down-ballot Cy Young votes. And if No. 50 creates an uplifting September song and pitches St. Louis into the playoffs, we’ll have even more to say about this.
Through Thursday, here’s where Wainwright ranked among NL starters in multiple meaningful categories:
Tied for 3rd in Quality Starts.
Tied for 2nd in quality-start percentage, .692.
He’s 4th in most innings; he’ll likely move up to third after the start against the Brewers. And he has a shot at finishing the season as the NL innings leader.
Tied for 3rd with 13 wins.
7th in WAR, 3.5.
Tied for 8th with a 2.97 ERA.
He ranks among the NL top 10 in winning percentage, adjusted ERA, best average game score (60), average walks and hits per inning (1.032) and home runs allowed per nine innings (0.90.)
And how about this? I think this says a lot: Wainwright is the only National League starting pitcher that has a minimum of 13 wins, at least 18 quality starts, 169 or more innings, and an ERA under 3.00.
This is a remarkable season. Remarkable if we factor in his age and the injury-ravaged 2018 season that limited him to eight starts and prompted thoughts of retirement.
Wainwright hasn’t pitched this well since his prime seasons, a sequence that began in 2007 and lasted through 2014. He missed one full season, 2011, because of elbow surgery.
But over his seven other seasons during the career peak, Wainwright had a 2.99 ERA and was 31 percent above the league average in adjusted ERA.
This season he has a 2.97 ERA and is 30 percent above league average in adjusted ERA. Virtually the same as his peak phase.
And if you want to include his 10 starts in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, Waino’s two-year ERA is 3.02 with an adjusted ERA that’s 31% above league average. Nearly a match with the peak years.
There’s one difference, of course. Wainwright was 25 years old, and turned 26, during the 2007 season, the beginning of his peak phase. And he was still fresh at age 33 by the end of the 2014 season. But Wainwright has delivered superb pitching over the last two seasons — opening the 2020 season at age 38, and closing the 2021 season at age 40.
Wainwright’s current 2.97 ERA would be his best since 2014.
His adjusted ERA would be his best since ‘14.
His 3.88 strikeout-walk ratio would be his finest since 2013.
His current strikeout rate of 8.2 per nine innings would be his best in a full season since 2013.
His homers-allowed rate would be his finest since 2014.
His 3.5 WAR would be his best since 2014. (He hasn’t had a WAR higher than 2.8 in a season since ‘14.)
And Wainwright needs 32 innings this month to reach the 200-inning mark for the first time since 2014.
This ain’t supposed to happen.
“There never was a man on Earth who pitched as much as me, but the more I pitched, the stronger my arm would get,” Satchel Paige said.
Paige’s final MLB season was back in 1953 at age 46. He made a one-game, three-inning cameo appearance for the 1965 Kansas City A’s at age 58.
The way Wainwright is going, your kids or grandkids may be sitting at Busch Stadium in 2031, watching him bedazzle hitters with his Uncle Charlie.
Oh, probably not.
Oh, but the vision still delights.
The vision of the long tall Wainwright standing on his Busch Stadium hill.
And no matter how long Wainwright pitches on that hill, the vision will endure to captivate Cardinal fans and those who care about him. With that, we will hope that it can last for a while. The free-and-easy Wainwright, breezing through a game, wearing the high socks, flipping through his catalogue of pitches, locking eyes with Molina, the crowd at Busch standing up, clapping and whistling and jumping up and down. And if it’s an extra-good day, we see the pitcher and his catcher hug. It’s why we love baseball. It’s why we love Adam Wainwright. It’s something that we’ll always remember. Simply because we cannot forget these idyllic scenes.
“The good part about getting older is you stop trying to prove anything to anyone, including yourself,” India-based author Twinkle Khanna wrote. “All you are in the pursuit of is collecting experiences — beautiful, fragile little soap bubbles that you store in your heart, and every once in a while you pull one out and gaze at the delicate pictures it shows you.”
That’s it. That’s Wainwright at age 40. Soap bubbles. Soap bubbles that last, and float, and change shapes, and bring out the smiles and maybe a sense of wonder. It’s the kid in him, appealing to the child in us. And kids love soap bubbles. The kind that Khanna wrote about. The soap bubbles that can be stored in your heart.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
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.