Luckily For The St. Louis Cardinals, Adam Wainwright Is Still Good At Pitching

Vintage jersey, but are we seeing vintage Wainwright as well? (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

This season has been a tale of two arbitrary endpoints for St. Louis Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright. But it's becoming clear which pitcher we should expect to see going forward.

If the playoffs began today, the St. Louis Cardinals would have a whole slew of problems, starting with the fact that they would be watching from the outside.

But it's about this time that people start using sentences beginning with, "If the playoffs started today..." to discuss where a certain team would finish or which teams would play each other in the first round of the playoffs. A recent discussion on a local sports talk radio show centered on that idea, asking which Cardinals starter would start the first game of a playoff series if said series began in July.

I think the question is as asinine today as I did when I first heard it. This isn't multiple choice. It's barely even a discussion. The answer is Adam Wainwright.

It hasn't always been. Wainwright had an undeniably rough first month-and-a-half that opened him up to questions about his arm, both strength and control, following Tommy John surgery. After his May 17 start at San Francisco, Wainwright had given up seven home runs in eight games while compiling a 5.77 ERA and 1.55 WHIP.

His May 22 start against the Padres was memorable for a few reasons. The complete-game shutout was certainly notable. But after the game, Wainwright got visibly emotional talking about the feat, his first shutout since Aug. 6, 2010. It had been a long road back from elbow surgery, and Wainwright once again felt like the pitcher he used to be. If only for a night, Wainwright was an ace.

But instead of being an outlier, Wainwright's start became a jumping-off point. Since that start, Wainwright has a 3.61 ERA and 1.15 WHIP while recording a quality start in seven of his 11 starts. Arbitrary endpoints? Maybe. But it's possible that something seemed to click in that complete game dominance, Padres or not.

The advanced statistics help bring everything full circle. In his 20-win season in 2010, Wainwright's fielding-independent pitching (FIP) mark was 2.86, thanks in part to an above-average HR/FB rate of 7.9 and a LOB% of 79.1 percent. With that home run rate adjusted for the league average, Wainwright had an expected FIP (xFIP) of 3.02, still fantastic as pitchers go.

Through Wednesday's game, Wainwright's FIP was 3.26, but he had an adjusted xFIP of 3.05 -- which would be the second-best of his career if it held. Due to an unusually high HR/FB (I wrote about that earlier this year) and an unusually low LOB% his other numbers don't match up with where he was before Tommy John, but the fact remains: Wainwright is basically back to being his former self.

There are still signs he's not entirely the Wainwright of old. Wainwright still struggles to go as deep into games as we grew accustomed to in those dominant 2009 and 2010 seasons, and his velocity is still a tick or two below where it used to be. These things are to be expected when building up arm strength; given time, Wainwright should at least come close to his former velocity. None of his pitches are as dominant as they had been, either, but his fastball and curveball both being positive-value pitches is cause for optimism.

In asking which pitcher would start a Game 1, one need not even disparage Kyle Lohse or Lance Lynn to make the point. Lohse and Lynn have been fantastic, and either would certainly be the best pitcher in a number of rotations this year. But there's no question that the 2010 version of Adam Wainwright would take the mound for almost any team in the first game of the playoffs. And if we're to believe what we see and what the numbers tell us, that Wainwright and this year's model are quite similar. After a year and a few months of wondering what a post-surgery Wainwright would look like, we've got our answer.

Adam Wainwright is back.

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