St. Louis Cardinals: Bad luck, bad timing hurt Wainwright’s pedigree
St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright’s Hall of Fame chances could be dampened by circumstances out of his control.
When Adam Wainwright decides to hang up his cleats, the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame will come calling. But injuries and a lack of awards could put a dent in his Cooperstown candidacy.
I got the idea to write this article thanks to a Reddit post analyzing Wainwright’s career, and I’d like to take a further look into it.
Wainwright started his career in 2005 the way many pitchers do: out of the bullpen. He made two appearances in September. The next season, he became the Cardinals’ most effective reliever, with his 3.12 ERA lower than any qualified pitcher on the team other than Chris Carpenter. His fielding-independent pitching statistic was 3.31, which was tops among qualified Cardinals pitchers. He also famously closed Game 7 of the 2006 World Series.
Wainwright took over as the staff ace in 2007 for an injured Carpenter, and he pitched well if not brilliantly for the next two seasons. 2009 was when Wainwright blossomed into a star. He led the major league in wins and led the National League in games started, innings pitched and batters faced.
Wainwright was an absolute workhorse, and the results showed it, with a sparkling 2.63 ERA and 3.11 FIP. He finished third in Cy Young voting to Tim Lincecum and Carpenter despite snagging 12 first-place votes, while Lincecum only had 11 and Carpenter nine. He did earn a Gold Glove, but this would begin a frustrating trend for Wainwright of coming close to those coveted pitching awards but just missing them.
In 2010, Wainwright slashed his ERA and FIP even further, to 2.42 and 2.86, respectively. Unfortunately for Wainwright, he was the runner-up to future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay in possibly the best season of Halladay’s career.
The 2011 season was a lost one for Wainwright. A 29-year-old in the prime of his career, Wainwright required Tommy John surgery after an injury in Spring Training, and he could only look on as his team won it all in October.
Wainwright had a down year in 2012 by his standards as he worked his way back. His ERA ballooned to 3.94, although an FIP of 3.10 pointed to some bad luck. Fans might have thought he was entering the decline phase of his career; at age 30, it was certainly possible, if not probable.
However, to the joy of Cardinals fans, Wainwright returned with a vengeance in 2013. The year was similar to his 2009 showing in stats, with a slightly higher ERA offset by a lower FIP, and leading all of baseball in games started, innings pitched and batters faced. But Wainwright couldn’t snag the Cy Young award in 2013 either, finishing second to an otherworldly season from Clayton Kershaw.
In 2014, Wainwright was outclassed yet again, this time by two pitchers, despite a career-low 2.38 ERA, a career-high-tying 20 wins and a career-low 1.031 WHIP. Kershaw took home the award, and Johnny Cueto had a career year, finishing second.
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Wainwright looked to be ready to take another shot at the Cy Young in 2015. At age 33, he was reaching “now or never” territory. After three starts, two of them quality, Wainwright tore his Achilles tendon running out of the batter’s box in his fourth appearance, missing nearly all of the season, returning for three relief appearances in September and October.
As was the case in 2012, Wainwright wasn’t the same pitcher when he returned in 2016. However, he did not rebound as hoped in the coming years. It appeared age and injury had finally sapped him of his skills. From 2016 through 2018, Wainwright’s ERA was 4.77, and, it seemed he was cooked.
Wainwright showed some signs of revival in 2019, and the abridged 2020 season showed it wasn’t a fluke. Wainwright appeared to have adapted once again, even throwing two complete games. Another Cy Young candidacy is likely not in the cards, but you never know; Roger Clemens won one at age 42, and Gaylord Perry received one when he was 40. Of course, as far as we know, Wainwright is much “cleaner” than those two were.
Wainwright is odd in that he seems to have had two “prime” eras, and we could be in a miniature third edition right now. The question of whether Wainwright is a Hall of Famer comes down to whether one will judge him by stats or by accolades, and for those who judge by the awards a player has racked up during his career, they will not be impressed.
But Wainwright’s resilience and intelligence to realize he wasn’t the same power pitcher he was early in his career are remarkable, and he did what so many failed to do: He changed his style to fit his abilities instead of forcing his abilities to suit his pitching style. Wainwright’s ability to overcome obstacles makes him a Hall of Famer in my mind, and he is extremely active in giving back to the community as well, which is always a plus.
Wainwright will probably justifiably earn a spot in the MLB Hall of Fame eventually, but untimely injuries and the fact that someone was always just a bit better than him in his best years make it a tough sell for him to be a first-ballot shoo-in.