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Fixing the Adam Wainwright Situation is not Complicated…Just Leave Him at Home

By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)

Adam Wainwright is no longer an ace. Through 14 starts, the once-great starting pitcher is dragging around a 5.75 ERA in 72 innings pitched. That’s the highest ERA on the Cardinals’ 25-man roster, a ranking that makes it difficult to lead from the traditional running position for a staff ace, in front.

But this is not news.

Wainwright hasn’t been the St. Louis rotation’s best starting pitcher since the ascendance of Carlos Martinez, right? That didn’t necessarily mean he couldn’t be the ace. Fans of the Chris Carpenter experience know that an ace is more than a great pitcher – he’s a leader, a pace-setter for the five-man squad that takes the ball every fifth day. But as Carpenter himself said when struggling through what eventually became a career-ending injury, it’s hard to lead a baseball team when you’re not out there doing it.

The situation may be different, but the result is the same. Wainwright is not getting it done, and it’s hard to believe he can lead from the back of the pack effectively.

So much for being the ace.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have value. Yes, even as a starting pitcher. Take a look…

Of Waino’s 14 starts, half (7) have come on the road and half (7) at home. In those seven away starts, he’s compiled a gut-wrenching 9.48 ERA and a rubber-necking 1.91 WHIP. His last two road starts are a testament to that line, with nine runs allowed in 3.2 IP at Cincinnati and another nine runs in 1.2 IP – the shortest outing of his career – in Baltimore. With starts like these, I’m surprised his overall ERA isn’t higher.

If not for Busch Stadium, it would be.

In the other seven starts – the ones that have come at home – Wainwright has a much more characteristic 2.88 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP. That WHIP – Walks + Hits per Inning Pitched – is still unsavory. If that was his overall number, it would fall somewhere in the middle of the pack among National League starters, and that’s without giving them the benefit of cherry-picking their friendliest group of outings for comparison.

In a way, that high WHIP and low home ERA paints just the right picture for the pitcher Wainwright has become. A pitcher that, in the right park, bends but rarely breaks.

In 40.2 innings at home, Wainwright’s groundout-to-air-out (GO/AO) ratio is 1.05 – or roughly one ground out to every fly ball out recorded. That ratio nearly doubles when compared to the 31.1 innings thrown in road starts (2.05). That means he’s getting a higher percentage of his outs on the ground than in the air when pitching away from Busch Stadium.

Careful, now…

Because when you first hear that, it sounds like he’s inducing more ground balls. And he is…to a degree. But that’s not the whole story. In reality, he’s getting more outs on the ground because he needs to get more outs on the ground. In away games, he’s just not getting the outs he needs in the air.

Away from St. Louis, Wainwright is inducing ground balls on batted balls in play approximately 53.3% of the time. That’s almost ten percent higher than his ground ball percentage in Busch of 43.9%.  His fly ball percentage, on the other hand, drops from 30.1% at home to 25.2% on the road. For context, the same numbers for Mike Leake and Carlos Martinez are below:

(GB% Home / GB% Away / FB% Home / FB% Away)

Mike Leake  – 52.3  / 58.3 / 26.2 / 23.5

Carlos Martinez – 50.3 / 51.9 / 32.5  / 29.6

Based on the percentages, Yadier Molina and the pitching staff are clearly trying to use the dimensions and climate of Busch Stadium to get more outs on fly balls in play. When playing away, however, they shift to a more ground-pounding approach. Wainwright and Leake’s discrepancies are naturally more significant than the strikeout-dominant Martinez, but even Carlos sees a small uptick.

For the most part, Wainwright’s road GO/AO ratio suggests the change in pitching philosophy outside of Busch works for him. Unfortunately, there are two other culprits at play.

  1. Away from Busch, a lot of Wainwright’s fly balls leave the park. Cardinals’ pitchers are more comfortable allowing fly balls in Busch Stadium for a reason. Because they usually turn into outs. In other stadiums – say, Camden Yards – those balls tend to travel. In Wainwright’s case, fly balls lead to home runs 22.2% of the time. That’s nearly 17% more than his 5.4% of fly balls that result in home runs at home. By comparison, Leake’s home-run-per-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB) is 15.4% at home and 11.1% away. At first glance, that seems high, but it helps to remember that Leake doesn’t allow many fly balls to begin with. His GO/AO ratio is the best in the rotation at 1.75. When he wants outs, he gets them on the ground.
  2. Wainwright doesn’t strike out batters as often as he needs to. In the Cardinals’ rotation, Martinez leads the way in terms of strikeouts-outs-per-nine-innings (K/9) with 10.21. Wainwright is second-to-last at 7.63. Only Leak has lower with 6.38, again, because of all the ground balls he seeks.

To put this all another way, Mike Leake gets hitters out by inducing ground balls first, fly balls second, and strikeouts when necessary. When one isn’t working, he can fall back on his bread and butter, the ground ball out, which he does better than anyone on the staff. Carlos Martinez, however, can get ground ball outs nearly as well, but in a pinch, his specialty is the strikeout. Again, he does that better than anyone in the rotation.

But when it comes to old man Waino, the approach looks different.

Wainwright gets hitters out by inducing ground balls, striking out batters, and getting fly ball outs. He doesn’t do any one of them at an elite level, so he needs all three working simultaneously to consistently pitch deep in games and record wins. When he doesn’t have the luxury of big ballparks, those fly ball outs can turn into hits and home runs.

We can look at his game logs and see this play out.

To start the season, after a rough spring training, he threw five innings against the Cubs in Busch Stadium and allowed just two earned runs on three hits, none of them home runs. He then went on the road at Washington and New York and allowed a combined ten hits, nine runs, and two homers.

He again faced Chicago in St. Louis in mid-May, throwing seven innings of shutout ball to kick off that stellar stretch of four games that had everyone hoping classic Waino was back. He allowed a total of just one run on sixteen hits and no home runs. Three of those four games were played at home.

And finally, during his last four starts, the home-away split was most prominent.

In two starts at home, he allowed two runs, no home runs, and threw a total of 11 innings. The other two starts were played on the road where he allowed 18 runs, four home runs, and threw just five total innings. The game locations themselves even alternated, going home-away-home-away on the schedule.

Sure, there are anomalies. For example, how did he manage to throw seven shutout innings against the Rockies in Colorado?

But for the most part, the numbers show a clear approach for handling Adam Wainwright for the rest of the year.

As long as the Cardinals hope to contend, they can no longer afford to start Wainwright in hitter-friendly parks against strong offensive teams. Whether it’s Tyler Lyons, Luke Weaver, Marco Gonzales, or even Jack Flaherty, it’s time to use the Cardinals’ starting pitching depth to selectively skip Adam Wainwright in the starting rotation.

At this point, nothing else makes sense.

Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entitiesHe’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.

Check out the newest addition to the blog, Mike ‘N Mo!

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