This is not the Adam Wainwright we remember.
It's hard to believe it was all the way back in 2006 that the St. Louis Cardinals' tall righty was striking out Brandon Inge to win his team the World Series. Wainwright was just 25 years old then, and he would become a staple of the Cardinals' rotation the following year. The future was bright. The beautiful diamond at Busch Stadium, and the baseball world as a whole, was Wainwright's oyster.
Throw in three All-Star selections and another World Series ring in 2011, though Wainwright missed the season following Tommy John surgery in Spring training, and it looked like Wainwright would continue to lead the Cardinals rotation for years to come and pile up more successful seasons along the way.
The wheels fall off
How quickly some dreams turn into nightmares. Wainwright went 53-31 with a 3.05 ERA from 2012 to 2014, the three seasons following his elbow surgery, but everything changed in 2015. In a game against the Milwaukee Brewers in late April, Wainwright tore his Achilles tendon while batting and had surgery to repair it days later. Oddly enough, despite being told it could take as long as a year to recover, Wainwright pitched in relief on three occasions towards the end of the season and it looked like he would be back to his old self in 2016.
That assumption came back to bite, and hard. Wainwright went 13-9 in 2016 and saw his ERA balloon to 4.62 and his WHIP to 1.40. To give a better idea, his WHIP from 2012 to 2014 was an astounding 1.10. The 2016 season also saw Wainwright's home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB) more than double from 5.3% in 2014 (We're eliminating 2015 due to his injury) to 11.8%. His hard contact percentage also rose from 27.1% to 31.2%.
That trend continued the following year despite Wainwright going 12-5. His ERA rose even higher to 5.11 and injuries limited him to 23 starts in 123.1 innings. His HR/FB increased again to 12.7%. That's highly uncharacteristic for someone like Wainwright, whose career HR/FB is a respectable 8.3% according to FanGraphs. Granted, Wainwright was just coming back from a major injury in 2016, but 2017 can also be blamed on the back, elbow, and hamstring issues he dealt with all year.
The sad reality
Though Wainwright's issues in 2016 and '17 can easily be blamed on problems staying healthy, that just doesn't seem to be the case. As I write this, Wainwright just a few hours ago made his first start of the season against the Arizona Diamondbacks and, to put it bluntly, he did not do well at all. Wainwright lasted just 3.2 innings in St. Louis' 3-1 loss and on top of being responsible for all of Arizona's runs, he also walked four hitters and gave up four hits. He threw 89 pitches.
That is not the performance of a former ace. Those are the numbers of someone clearly on their way out of the game. Wainwright will earn $19.5m in 2018, which also is his contract year. Barring a major turnaround that sees him shake off whatever rust has plagued him the past two years, there is no way St. Louis or any other team will give him a contract.
Yes, Wainwright still has a devastating 12-6 curveball that buckles the knees of opposing hitters, but that only carries so much weight. His extended fastball use explains the sudden increase in home runs allowed and at 36 years old, his best days are behind him.
The saddest part about all this is Wainwright used to be an absolute force on the mound. He's finished in the top three of NL Cy Young voting four times in his career and were it not for equally dominant arms in Tim Lincecum, the late Roy Halladay, and Clayton Kershaw, he probably would have taken home the gold at least once.
Fast forward to today and the man is a shell of his former self. Burying him as done after one bad start is unfair but given his overall downward trajectory the past two years, it's hard to imagine Wainwright bouncing back. Nobody wants to admit it, but it's time for him to step away from baseball at the end of the season, at least if he doesn't show marked improvement.