The St. Louis Cardinals have many things to be excited about this season. They are the reigning World Series Champions. They have filled holes admirably throughout the offseason. One upgrade, which came from within, is the return of Adam Wainwright from Tommy John surgery. Wainwright underwent the surgery just over a year ago, but is ahead of schedule and early indications in camp suggest he is well on this way to returning to the form he displayed prior to the injury. Besides the obvious questions of his health, the next thing to ponder is how many innings will he be allowed to throw this season? Then, based on those innings we can speculate about his performance. Let’s run the numbers.
Prior to Wainwright going down he threw 230 1/3 innings in 2010 and 233 innings in 2009. He had a shortened 2008 (132 IP) and he tossed 202 innings in 2007. He has averaged 6.7 innings during his 119 starts. As a conservative person, I would assume the Cardinals would be happy with as little as 6.2 innings per start from Wainwright this season. No one should expect a player to come back from Tommy John surgery and be at exactly the same place as far as stamina is concerned. While he seems to be very healthy and ahead of schedule, it doesn’t mean that he is completely ready for game conditions right now, nor should it be expected in April or May. More importantly, no one knows how manager Mike Matheny plans on handling Wainwright’s work load.
Here are a couple of ways Matheny could go about bringing Wainwright along. He could stick to a strict pitch count early on and ramp it up as the season progresses. He could also, on top of a pitch count, skip Wainwright early on to give him extra rest in April. These measures would allow Wainwright time to get into the full groove of the season and would not hinder the Cardinals desire to win games.
Looking back through Wainwright’s seasons as a starter, he has averaged 101.46 pitches per start. This equates to 15.14 pitches per inning. This shows that Wainwright is very economical with his pitches. One thing he should be able to regain quickly is his control so we should expect Wainwright be able to keep his pitch count per inning to around 16 giving him some leeway especially in the early parts of the season. Wainwright is probably not going to want to be on a pitch count but, I would suspect this is exactly what is going to happen. Below is a chart showing Wainwright’s estimated pitches per game separated by starts 1-10, 11-20 and 21-30. I would not expect him to make more than 30 regular season starts. Remember, the Cardinals have aspirations of making the playoffs and they will need a strong, not worn out Wainwright, should they be able to return to the post-season.
These estimates are very simplistic but I believe lead to a number that is representative of a reasonable workload for a man returning from elbow surgery. Don’t confuse the average number of pitches column with the pitch count Matheny may use. I would guess that if a pitch count is installed, it would be about five pitches higher than the average in starts 1-10, then 10 pitches higher in starts 11-20 and no pitch count in effect for the remaining starts (but do not expect 120 pitches in a game either). The training wheels could obviously be taken off if he is feeling and performing beyond expectations. I’m intentionally being conservative.
I decreased the number of pitches per inning by .5 for each set of starts, assuming that his control will get better as the season progresses. The average number of pitches per game divided by the number of pitches per inning gives us innings per start. Then each of those is multiplied by 10 (the total number of starts). All total innings columns are added to get 184 innings pitched for the season. This equals 6.13 innings per start. I suggested earlier that 6.2 per start was plausible.
Now, let’s use the figure of 184 innings as a measure in determining the type of season this would lead to for Wainwright in terms of WAR and performance value. Wainwright owns a career ERA of 2.93 as a starter. While I think Wainwright is going to be effective this season, it is unfair to suggest that he is going to come away with an ERA below 3. He certainly can, but it would be unrealistic to assume it. Below is a chart which shows 5 different ERA scenarios and the resulting WAR and performance value.
Again it is unfair to suggest Wainwright should have a season with an ERA at 3.00. I used it anyway, because it is possible, and fans love to assume the best. For each ERA, I supplied the WAR he would generate based on the 184 innings pitched and a league ERA of 4.00. The performance value is derived by using $5 million per 1 WAR and multiplying that by the WAR figure. Wainwright is set to make $9 million this season. So, any of these scenarios will be financially successful for the Cardinals.
I believe the Cardinals would be happy with Wainwright making 30 starts and logging 184 or more innings. With his pedigree, if he is able to show he can withstand this type of workload the results should follow. I think in order for them to be in contention for the division title, it would be beneficial if he is in the 3.50 ERA range so that his WAR hovers around the 4 mark. This would put less pressure on the remaining starters. Personally, I think Wainwright can end up with an ERA in the 3.25 range with 184 innings as the low water mark for innings pitched. If the innings increase and the ERA stays the same the WAR and performance value rise. But, again don’t expect the Cardinals to push Wainwright. He becomes immensely valuable if he is healthy and productive for a post-season run. If he is worn down at the end of the September, their chances of success in the post-season diminishes, and the extra work he performed in the regular season becomes pointless.