Adam Wainwright used to be the ace of aces. He finished third in the Cy Young voting in 2009, and he finished second in 2010. By the transmutative properties of awards balloting, that meant he was going to win the danged thing in 2011.
Instead, his ligament tore. He missed 2011, but he made a fairly speedy recovery to come back before the start of the 2012 season.
Wainwright dominated the Pirates on Wednesday to put the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, so you know how the story ends, at least the most recent chapters. But it's worth going back to the first couple months of Wainwright's 2012 and take a look at what he was doing.
He was pretty bad. People were worried.
The year was 2012. The month was June. The trade deadline was around the corner, and a hot topic around the Cardinalsphere was what was wrong with Adam Wainwright. His strikeouts were cool. His walks were as low as ever. And as Viva El Birdos recounts, it sure seemed like Wainwright should have been pitching better.
There just isn't much evidence that opposing hitters are consistently making excellent contact against Wainwright and driving the ball out of the park. Wainwright's bout of homeritis legitimately seems to be a bit of bad batted-ball luck.
It made sense. But Wainwright gave up five runs in the start after that post. He gave up seven runs a couple starts after that. A few weeks after that, he gave up seven runs again, raising his ERA to 4.75. He mixed iffy starts with superlative starts for the next couple months, finishing with an ERA just under 4.00.
All the while, he set up a power curve with a hard fastball. Wainwright worked with two-seamers in '09 and '10, but he moved to a cutter in 2012, according to PITCHf/x, and his velocity wasn't noticeably different. His curve had the same velocity and break. The walk rate was similar. He looked like the same pitcher that he was before the injury, even though he was allowing a lot more runs.
Those earned runs, though. People were worried.
That's still what I think of with every Wainwright start these days. He was so bad in the first half of 2012, even though the statistical indicators suggested he would be fine. He was more than fine. He was Adam Wainwright. He was always ready to kick down the door like Ted Nugent in the "High Enough" video, and in the playoffs that year, he was aces. Wainwright, not Nugent, I mean.
Next season, a prominent pitcher will struggle. We'll all cycle through the possibilities. Is it batting average on balls in play? More home runs than expected? Twice as many? Poor luck? No luck? Injuries? Wainwright's 2012 season will always be the personification of the eyes-vs.-stats debate for a bit longer, then. He looked fine. He was probably going to be fine. But any time you watch a pitcher struggle like Wainwright did in the first half of 2012, you start to wonder if they're secretly done for.
After watching Wainwright mow through the Pirates on Wednesday, it's pretty clear that he was at his best, or close to it. He allowed a run after three infield hits, but he was mostly perfect. That Wainwright was clearly as good as any of the previous iterations, including the ones that made it through '09 and '10 with Cy Young votes. He's as good as he ever has been, if not better.
The corollary, unfortunately, is Tim Lincecum, who started 2012 with those same statistical indicators and hopes of promise, and who is still something of a hard-to-read mess. Is he just a harder-to-wake Wainwright? Probably not after you take velocity into the equation. The odds are against anyone enjoying a renaissance quite the same way as the Cardinals' rightie are low. There's usually a reason for increased ineffectiveness that's easy to blame.
Not for Wainwright, though. He looked like he should be fine all along, and the confusion over his ineffectiveness that lasted until last year's playoffs. When he signed his extension this April, the Cardinals looked like the ones assuming most of the risk. It probably saved them scores of millions, considering how well he's pitched since then.
So the next time a pitcher is struggling, and you can't figure out why, remember the parable of Adam Wainwright. Maybe it really is sample size. Maybe he really will snap out of it. It's rarely that easy, but Wainwright gives us hope that it just might be every so often.