The St. Louis Cardinals have an unusual Ace

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Oct 11, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright fields a ground ball in the fifth inning against the San Francisco Giants in game one of the 2014 NLCS playoff baseball game at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 11, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright fields a ground ball in the fifth inning against the San Francisco Giants in game one of the 2014 NLCS playoff baseball game at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /
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Oct 11, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright fields a ground ball in the fifth inning against the San Francisco Giants in game one of the 2014 NLCS playoff baseball game at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 11, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright fields a ground ball in the fifth inning against the San Francisco Giants in game one of the 2014 NLCS playoff baseball game at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

Adam Wainwright is the St. Louis Cardinals’ Ace, but is he really one of the most dominant pitchers in the league?

As any good Cardinal fan knows, the St. Louis Cardinals have one Ace, and his name is Adam Wainwright. It’s true that Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Lance Lynn have all looked like young studs at one point in time or another, and they may even become better pitchers than Wainwright someday, but the rotation is anchored by the lanky right-hander — and it will be until he retires.

And yet, good Cardinal fan though I am, I have frequently struggled to think of Adam as a true Ace in the same sense that Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Felix Hernandez are. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that, but it’s true, and my reasoning — while mostly subconscious — isn’t wholly unreasonable.

For instance, my baseball experience tells me that Aces strikeout a lot of batters. Kershaw, Sale, Scherzer, and Archer all had strikeout rates above 10 k/9. That’s not only impressive, but it also automatically makes me think of them as an Ace. Wainwright’s best K/9 as a starter was 8.34 in 2012, and in 2014 it was a mere 7.10. In the games he started in 2015, that number fell to a measly 6.48, which would have ranked in the bottom 15 of all of baseball had he kept it up.

You might think that, since he’s not getting batters out with his swing-and-miss stuff, that perhaps he’s doing it with weak contact, but his BABIP since at an unimpressive .290. That’s a tad below average, and far from dominant. Marco Estrada had a BABIP of .216 this past season and had success primarily because of that, but Wainwright isn’t dominating because of that.

Beyond the numbers, he’s kind of getting old, right? At 34 he isn’t a dinosaur yet, and many pitchers are effective later in their careers, but I usually don’t think of an Ace as an aging player. They’re supposed to be young guns in the prime of their careers mowing down hitters, right? Yet, the Cardinals’ Ace is part of the “aging core” that apparently scared Jason Heyward away.

Another thing I’m trained to expect is longevity — lots of seasons, and lots of innings pitched each season. Adam Wainwright easily meets the later qualification, average 205 innings a year in seasons where he starts at least 20 games. However, he’s only started in seven full seasons. Injuries have certainly played a part, but the fact remains that Wainwright hasn’t been around for that long. By comparison, Hernandez has tossed 9 straight seasons of 190+ innings, and he won’t turn 30 until this season.

More from Adam Wainwright

So how is it that an aging pitcher who doesn’t strike anyone out with a high BABIP and only seven years of starting experience earns the title of “Ace”?

This is the question I had to ask myself after noticing my anti-Wainwright bias. I mean, I always knew he was a great pitcher, but a real Ace? I know everyone loves him for lots of reasons, but I didn’t buy it, and those were my reasons.

And I was very wrong.

The St. Louis Cardinals have a bona-fide Ace in Adam Wainwright, even if he doesn’t look like most of the other Aces in the league.

To begin with, even though he doesn’t strike out a lot of hitters, he mitigates the negative effects of a low strikeout rate with an outrageously low walk rate. So far this decade, Wainwright has the eighteenth lowest BB/9 in all of baseball at 1.91. That ranks ahead of pitchers like Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, Zack Greinke, David Price, Gerrit Cole, and, yes, even Clayton Kershaw.

But what about the batted-ball profile? If he’s giving up hits, he should still be getting burned, right? Well, he would if he ever gave up home runs, but — looking again at the past decade — he doesn’t. His 7.5% HR/FB rate ranks seventh among qualified starters in that time. In fact, Waino just doesn’t give up many extra base hits at all, consistently posting top marks in slugging percentage against. In his last full season (2014), he ranked fifth with a .310 mark.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Adam Wainwright is the St. Louis Cardinals’ Ace because he just performs. Fangraph’s version of WAR likes Wainwright well, and he’s averaging nearly 5 fWAR per full season as a starter, which is ace level territory. And though I don’t often like to rely on it, Wainwright’s ERA as a starter sits at a sparkling 2.96, and his FIP of 3.09 suggests that’s a reasonably accurate portrayal of his pitching ability.

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To summarize, even though he doesn’t prevent runs in the way that many other Ace’s around the league do, there’s no doubt that Adam Wainright is one of the league’s best pitchers. The St. Louis Cardinals are lucky to have him, and we’re lucky to watch such a dominant force every fifth day.

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