Adam Wainwright vs. Context: An Appreciation

The season of Adam Wainwright has taken some interesting parallels to what his complete body of work has displayed. The Cardinal ace joined the ranks of the 20-win club for the second time in his eight year career on Monday night, and in the process put a cap on what has been a great, yet assorted 2014 campaign for him. It is the type of season that speaks to the legacy that Wainwright is in route to crafting: brilliant, yet underestimated.

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Years from now, when someone logs into Baseball Reference to get a grasp on what Wainwright’s career reflected will look at 2014 and see it as his tour de force. It will show that he tied his personal high in victories, while setting career-bests in earned run average and shutouts as well. Depending on where the season goes from here and if he takes his next start or not, he would also stand to finish with career lows in hits and walks surrendered, while crossing over 220 innings pitched for the fourth time in his last five years.

Yet in the context of real-time, it has been a more strenuous year than he has ever faced. After coming out of the gates pitching perhaps the best he ever did in his career in the first half of the year (12-4, 1.83 ERA, .201 average against), yet it was not one that was unmarred either. The alarming forearm injury that caused him a start in June was the starting point, and then the dead arm issue that rose amid a second half slide that saw the worse month of his career in August.

There was a point that he reached that it was even questionable about how to deploy him going ahead down the stretch. But in many ways, that dip in his production threw the validity of his entire body of work far too deep into question, despite the fact that it has easily been the second best effort in the National League this year.

On raw numbers, Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto has been outstanding. He has pitched to nearly identical seasonal totals as Wainwright, falling just behind him in wins, but surpassing him in ERA, innings pitched, strikeouts, hits surrendered and batting average against. Yet it can be said that Wainwright has pitched in more high leverage games for the division battling Cardinals, and has competed at the same comparable rate as Cueto. Wainwright’s 12 outings of at least seven innings and zero earned runs is five greater than both Cueto and Kershaw on the year. Again, context does matter in assessing impact, and this is nothing new for Wainwright—both looking forward and backwards.

The perception of Wainwright’s career could end up paralleling what this season has in many ways, whereas its impact is underrated in the big picture. At 33, he will not have the grand numbers that make him appear to be Cooperstown ready. 200 wins is a debated qualifying mark for many, and Wainwright at age 33 is at only 119. Likewise, it will be difficult for him to lean on the prestige that being an award winner brings to long-term perception as well, due to the fact that his run has been just a notch below that of a few particularly impressive contemporaries.

These shadows were initially cast by Tim Lincecum’s early career reign, as well as the brilliance of his rotation mate in Chris Carpenter. Now in his mid-prime years he is victim to the excellence of Kershaw’s run, which has for the second consecutive year superseded one of Wainwright’s strongest efforts to make it just a matter of time before taking home this year’s Cy Young nod, his second in three years’ time. It is a situation that is that is reminiscent of the situation that faced Albert Pujols’ accent to recognizable glory early in his career, as he was blocked from at least two legitimate MVP claims by Barry Bonds’ historically good seasons.

In many ways, he has been handcuffed by association when it comes to the prestige claim that awards can bring. His greatest accomplishments have been team related—mainly the two World Series championships he been associated with. However, the first one he achieved as a closer and the second he was injured for. So outside of the brilliant series closing effort he had in last season’s National League Division Series, he is short on memorable moments in the starting capacity that he is famous for. There is not “that” moment or season that jumps of the page, such as Justin Verlander’s 2011 or even Clayton Kershaw’s 2014, as it should be etched in stone down the road. Wainwright has operated excellently, yet slightly in the shadows.

Yet for Wainwright, he is catching just the beginning of Kershaw’s run, so there stands to be a good chance that even his best effort could not be enough to get him that fleeting honor that is given the league’s top annual arm. His destiny could be that of being this generation’s Dave Stewart, Curt Schilling or Jack Morris: a great and annually pivotal arm, but one whom the appreciation of is limited due to the context it comes in.

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