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Adam Wainwright

In Baseball on April 6, 2013 at 3:39 pm

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright signed a $97.5 million contract extension last week. Cardinals fans should be cautiously optimistic — with an emphasis on the “cautiously.”

Adam Wainwright’s good week ended with a bad night. On March 27, Wainwright agreed to a five-year $97.5 million contract extension with the St. Louis Cardinals. The deal affirmed Wainwright’s value to the team as an ace, and his contributions as a player. Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt, Jr. issued a press release heralding the extension, with words like “elite,” “leader,” “tradition” and “excellence.” Wainwright was the staff ace and would be for years to come. On April 1, Wainwright gave up 11 hits, surrendered three earned runs and took the loss in the season opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Not a great way to celebrate.

Wainwright certainly deserves his extension. As a pitcher, he’s been invaluable to the Cardinals, from closing out the 2006 World Series to assuming the role as staff ace when Chris Carpenter went down with injuries. Since becoming a starter in 2007, he’s been worth 16.7 Wins Above Replacement, recorded 7.42 strikeouts per nine innings, and finished as high as second in Cy Young Award balloting. He clearly deserves the largest contract given to a pitcher by the Cardinals. But the question should be, is he worth it?

It’s an important question, and not only because St. Louis dropped nearly $100 million on a single player.[1] The Cardinals also committed themselves to a player — and a starting pitcher at that — who will be well into his thirties by the deal’s end. Expensive, long-term deals don’t always turn out well for teams (See: Hampton, Mike; Santana, Johan; and Zito, Barry), and injuries, as well as natural decline, can turn franchise cornerstones into albatrosses. So, will the Wainwright deal add to the quickly growing legend of St. Louis General Manager John Mozeliak, or will it induct him into the Hall of “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time?”

Adam Wainwright's life is literally worth more than yours.

Adam Wainwright’s life is literally worth more than yours.

The extension has some positive aspects. Wainwright’s salary averages to about $20 million per season under the new deal, which is the new going rate in Major League Baseball for franchise players. But it doesn’t break the bank, like Santana’s $23 million per season, or Alex Rodriguez’s $27.5 million per season. In fact, if you look at Wainwright’s value to the Cardinals, the deal actually looks pretty good from the team’s perspective. The people over at Fangraphs.com (who I am convinced are magical baseball statistics pixies or wizards) have a formula that translates a player’s performance into a dollar amount. According to their calculations, Wainwright’s pitching was worth $89.1 million to the team from 2007-2012. However, St. Louis only paid him $24,409,500. If Wainwright never threw another pitch for the Cardinals, his 2007-2012 performance would almost make up for the extension’s sunk cost.

But baseball doesn’t work like that, and there are things to worry about. For instance, the deal doesn’t start until 2014, and runs until Wainwright’s age 36 season. There’s an old baseball trope about players being on the wrong side of 30. Unfortunately, this one tends to be accurate most of the time.[2] Frankly, 36-year-old pitchers probably don’t have the stamina, velocity or stuff that younger pitchers do, as Roy Halladay is learning this season.

There’s also the issue of Wainwright’s injury history. A finger injury in 2008 limited him to only 20 starts, and he missed the entire 2011 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. His return season in 2012 was largely injury free, but Wainwright’s two big injuries can’t be ignored. Wainwright’s main pitch is his curveball, and the finger injury was on the middle finger of his right hand. The injury hasn’t resurfaced since 2008, but for a pitcher who throws the hook nearly a quarter of the time, it has to be a worry. The Tommy John surgery also presents some concerns. Modern medical technology has made UCL replacement surgery fairly routine in baseball, but it’s not perfect. Not every pitcher can be John Smoltz — have the surgery, pick up the split-fingered fastball, and dominate as a starter and a closer for a decade — and it shouldn’t be a presumption that Wainwright can do the same.

Most disturbing, however, was Wainwright’s 2012 season. His earned run average increased by nearly a run and a half, his 97 ERA+ was below average for both himself and the league, his WHIP increased by over .200, and he failed to break the 200 inning mark. Now, some regression can be expected when a player returns from surgery, especially one as serious as Tommy John surgery. But other statistics clearly show that his problems weren’t all surgery-related. His fastball velocity dropped from 93.5 mph to 89.9 mph from 2010 to 2012. Perhaps correspondingly, Wainwright used his fastball less, dropping from 46.4 percent of his pitches to 41.8 percent. His frequency of throwing the curveball — his signature off-speed pitch — also dropped significantly, from 19.5 percent to 12.8 percent. At the same time, Wainwright started throwing a cutter, which was only slightly better than league average at .17 runs above average, and significantly worse than both his fastball and curveball. With another year of recovery from the surgery, Wainwright’s numbers should improve in 2013, but it’s probably wishful thinking to expect 2014 and beyond Wainwright to resemble 2009-2010 Wainwright.

Monday night was just one game, and Wainwright will probably start around 33 more games for St. Louis this season. He’ll have other games like it — he’ll have some bad ones, some good ones and some okay ones. But if the pixies at Fangraphs are right, Cardinals fans shouldn’t be too worried. Their calculations show that Wainwright’s lackluster 2012 performance was worth about $18 million to the team. If he repeated 2012 for the length of his extension, St. Louis would receive about $90 million in value, or just about an even return. Still, the Cardinals might do well to repurpose a Teddy Roosevelt quote: “speak softly, and carry a big insurance policy.”


[1] Or about half the budget of Disney’s John Carter.

[2] Unless you’re Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens.

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