How bueno is Waino 2.0?

Last night, May 1st, Adam Wainwright got his first victory of the year against the Pittsburgh Pirates, as the Cardinals bats lashed out for 10 runs and 13 hits. The Pirates and their inept defense can always be counted on as a cure for any offensive slump! But more important to the long-term outlook of St. Louis season, is the progress made by Wainwright in his recovery from Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of the 2011 season. Wainwright pitched seven innings with the following line: 5 hits, 4 ER, 1 BB, 6 K’s. Not a bad outing. The million dollar question is, what is the new standard of expectation for post-TJ Waino, or Waino 2.0, as I like to call him.

Concerns abounded when Wainwright had several less than stellar starts. Questions arose such as, “will he ever get his velocity back?”, “why isn’t his breaking ball working like it used to?”, “should he go to the bullpen until he gets ‘right'”? Certainly all reasonable questions based on his early performance, made more alarming by his stellar spring training. Everyone thought the Cardinals were getting Waino 1.0 back. The problem is no two pitchers are exactly the same, and no two pitchers respond to TJ surgery in the same manner, or on the same timetable.

So far in 2012, Wainwright has pitched 27 innings with an ERA of 6.75, WHIP of 1.31, and only 1 win against 3 losses. His numbers are worse than any other pitcher on the Cardinals staff using the above metrics. A deeper look into the numbers will reveal that things are not quite as “bad” as they may seem through his first five starts.

A quick qualitative observation before we dig into the numbers…

Wainwright looks extremely focused every time I have seen him. He definitely has the Carp death stare down to a science since his return. The other thing I have noticed while watching him pitch, however, is that he seems to be laboring on the mound pretty heavily. Watch his breathing as he pitches, he is really huffing and puffing out there. Part of it I attribute to adrenaline, and part to getting back into the routine of pitching every five days when the games actually matter. I do not believe he has fully re-accustomed to the physical demands of pitching and it is affecting his stuff. Each time out, his game conditioning and strength will improve, and as a result make it easier to locate his pitches and his breaking ball to break like it should.

In regards to his numbers….

Through his first 27 innings, he has struck out 27 batters. That is a very encouraging sign. In addition, he has only walked 6 batters. His 4.5 K/BB ratio is better than any season of his career (yes I know, small sample size and all that), but Wainwright’s struggles can not be attributed to no longer being able to strike batters out or an inability to throw strikes. He is doing better than ever in that category.

He has a ground ball rate of 54%, which is tremendous. Line drive rate of 18% is also very good. His babip (batting average balls in play) is 31%, which is right near league-average. The main area of concern for Wainwright so far has been % of flyballs that leave the yard. So far this season, 33% of flyballs hit against him have been home runs, and in his last two starts, 50%.

That is an astounding percentage, and I fully expect that number to return to league average 10% in his coming starts. Had that been the case, his ERA would actually be 2.80 this season instead of 6.75. As a matter of fact, that is his xERA (2.80) to date.

No one fully knows what “normal” looks like for Waino 2.0. What we do know is that all the metrics are very good, save home run/fly ball percentage. Once that is corrected, Wainwright should be a sub-3 ERA pitcher again, and the Cardinals pitching staff will be even better.

Scary thought.

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