A tribute to a Cardinal legend

 

Liga Nacional Serie de Campeonato de Juego 4 en St. Louis

UPI / Bill Greenblatt

For 13 years, Adam Wainwright has epitomized what it means to be a Cardinal. In every conceivable way, Waino has oozed greatness, from his performance on the field, to his presence in the dugout and the clubhouse, all the way to his efforts to help make his community and the world a better place. In every sense, Wainwright has been a champion. Because he is a free agent at the end of the season, today may very well mark Wainwright’s final home start as a Cardinal. This is my tribute to him.

Wainwright grew up in Georgia, a Braves fan, and as so often happens in Georgia, the Braves scouted young Wainwright and drafted him 29th overall in 2000 out of high school in Brunswick. He immediately caught the eye of Baseball America as he was ranked among their top-100 prospects each year of his minor league career, peaking at #18 prior to the 2003 season. He dominated each level of the minor leagues, averaging more than a strikeout per inning in both levels of A ball as a 19 and 20-year old in 2001 and 2002.

In the offseason prior to the 2004 season, the Cardinals traded OF J.D. Drew and C/utility player Eli Marrero to the Braves in exchange for 3 players – pitchers Jason Marquis and Ray King and minor league pitcher Adam Wainwright. Though Marquis and King immediately stepped into the Cardinals’ pitching staff, it soon became clear that Wainwright was the key man in the deal.

Wainwright was immediately assigned to AAA-Memphis but, unfortunately, things didn’t go so well early on. The walks were still low and the strikeouts still high but this time, so were the homers (as often happens in the Pacific Coast League). Worse still, after just 12 starts as a Redbird, Waino’s season was cut short with an elbow strain.

Wainwright’s 2004 season was finished and he would miss much of the 2005 season as well, though he was first promoted to St. Louis in September and made his debut at home against the Mets on September 11. It was not an auspicious debut for the young hurler as he gave up 3 runs on a homer to begin his career but it wouldn’t be too long before Wainwright would exact revenge.

Because Wainwright was so highly though of by the organization and because the team wanted to be cautious with a young star so recently diagnosed with the elbow strain, the team decided to have him pitch the 2006 season out of the bullpen. For much of the season he served as the primary setup man for closer Jason Isringhausen and pitched extremely well. He averaged nearly a strikeout per inning and had more than 3 strikeouts per walk out of the pen. His FIP was 3.31, 26% below league average and his ERA of 3.12 was 29% below league average. By every measure, it was an outstanding rookie campaign – the former 3-sport high school superstar even hit his first big league homer — and, when Izzy got hurt late in the 2006 season, Wainwright stepped in as the closer.

The 2006 playoffs were a remarkable success for the Cardinals as the team that won just 83 games during the regular season, barely squeaking into the postseason tournament, ended up the ones spraying the champagne all over each other when October ended. Wainwright’s iconic moment was striking out future Hall-of-Famer Carlos Beltran looking with the bases loaded to defeat the Mets in game 7 of the NLCS. The knee-buckling curve, his signature pitch, froze Beltran in his tracks and pushed the Cardinals into the World Series. Every Cardinal alive can remember the picture of Wainwright, arms extended into the Gotham night sky, waiting to embrace also-Cardinal-great Yadier Molina as he rushed to the mound.

waino

The Detroit Tigers dominated the American League in 2006 and were supposed to dominate the Cardinals in the World Series. Of course, the Cardinals had other ideas and were able to finish off the vaunted Tigers in just 5 games with Wainwright again ending the series by striking out Brandon Inge. The moment wasn’t quite the same and isn’t as iconic as the one that ended the NLCS but it still seemed to be the perfect way to end the 2006 postseason with Wainwright again awaiting Molina’s embrace as the celebration began on the Busch Stadium infield. Wainwright pitched a nearly perfect postseason, throwing 9.2 innings, yielding just 7 hits and 2 walks, while striking out 15. His ERA? 0.00. His record was 1-0 and he saved 4 games, including 3 in that NLCS. A star was born.

Despite his clear bullpen dominance, it was obvious that Wainwright’s future was as a starter and so into the rotation he went to begin the 2007 season. He would pitch most of the next 11 seasons as a starter, pitching only a few times out of the pen in 2015 when he returned late in the season from surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon.

Between 2007 and 2014, Wainwright became one of the elite starting pitchers in baseball, only averaging more than 3 walks per 9 innings in that first season and never averaging as many as 1 homer per 9 innings. In 2009, he finished 19-8 with a 2.63 ERA and a 3.11 FIP. He had 212 K’s in a league-leading 233 innings pitched. By Fangraphs, he was worth 5.7 WAR. By Baseball-Reference, he was even better, worth 6.3 WAR. He finished 3rd in Cy Young voting that season and 15th in the MVP race. He also won his 1st Gold Glove just for good measure.

The next year, 2010, was Wainwright’s first All-Star season. He finished that campaign with a 20-11 record and a 2.42 ERA. Not only was his ERA lower than the previous season, so was his FIP as it fell to 2.86. He struck out 213 in 230 innings and this time finished 2nd in the Cy Young balloting. In 2011, the elbow problems that Wainwright suffered from as a minor league returned, this time with reinforcements, and Waino would lose the entire season to Tommy John surgery. The Cardinals would again win the World Series and it’s unfortunate that Wainwright – though always the consummate teammate – couldn’t enjoy the team’s success on the field.

Wainwright returned to the mound in the 2012 season, nearly as good as new. As is typical for pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery, Waino didn’t pitch quite as well as he had before the surgery but he still was able to throw nearly 200 innings and, though his ERA was nearly 4, his FIP was just 2.10. By fWAR, he was worth more than 4 wins.

2013 was possibly Wainwright’s best season – at least it was by fWAR where he was worth 6.6 wins. He again led the league in innings pitched with 241.2 and again struck out more than 200 batters. He only walked 35 in those 240+ innings and again finished 2nd in voting for the Cy Young. In 2014, it was more of the same – more brilliance – from Wainwright. Again he threw more than 200 innings and finished with an ERA and a FIP below 3.00. This year he started the All-Star game and finished 3rd in Cy Young balloting. His record as one of the best pitchers of his generation was sealed.

In 2016, after returning from the torn Achilles in 2015, he returned to the rotation but it was clear that age and mileage were catching up to him a little. He was still a solid starter for the Cardinals but he wasn’t a dominant starter the way the team and the fans had become accustomed to. He struggled again in 2017 and to begin the 2018 season before spending most of this season on the disabled list.

Prior to today’s start again the Giants, Wainwright has returned from the D.L. to throw 2 solid, if unspectacular, starts for the team as it pushes for another playoff berth.

Over his 13 year career as a Cardinal, Wainwright has won 148 games and has a 3.30 ERA and FIP. He’s given up fewer hits than innings pitched and less than a homer per 9 innings. He’s struck out 3 times as many batters as he has walked and has more than 1600 strikeouts in more than 1900 innings. Injuries have prevented him from having a chance to become an MLB Hall-of-Famer but he is a no-doubt, 1st ballot Cardinal Hall-of-Famer no matter how, or where, he finishes his career.

Wainwright has thrown 89 postseason innings for the Cardinals and has a 3.03 ERA in those games. He’s averaged more than a strikeout per inning and has struck nearly 6.5 batters for every one he has walked. He has pitched in 2 World Series (2006 and 2013) and has 2 World Series rings. He has been a champion in every sense of the word.

In the clubhouse and dugout he is the consummate teammate. His hijinks are well-known and he’s always done so much to help keep the team loose. We’ve all heard the stories about how he planted the garden for Matt Carpenter while recovering from injury that ultimately led to the salsa that has helped lead the team back into the playoff chase this season. We’ve also heard the story about how Wainwright paid for the rental car so that Ryan Sherriff wouldn’t have to walk to and from spring training last season. He has not only been a leader of the pitching staff. He’s also been a leader of the team for the bulk of his 13 years in a Cardinal uniform.

Off the field, he has become one of the great philanthropists in baseball. He, of course, created the fantasy football network called Big League Impact which has raised millions of dollars for charities across the country. He has also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide water and shelter for the people of Haiti. Because Wainwright puts his muscle where his money goes, he has actually visited Haiti several times and put his proverbial shovel in the dirt to help build homes and dig wells for the people who need it most. Wainwright has been a superstar on the field and remains one off the field in every conceivable way.

I realize that baseball is a business. Cards’ fans have seen the Pujols, Edmonds, and Holliday eras end with those icons in different uniforms. They just don’t look exactly right but we’ve grown accustomed to seeing that and dealing with that without shedding too many tears or being too upset about it. As Wainwright’s contract ends this offseason, it’s easy to foresee his tenure as a Cardinal coming to a close but, because Waino has such a competitive nature, it’s just as easy to see him not quite ready to end his career. Just as it was with the other franchise icons, it’s not going to look quite right to see Wainwright sporting someone else’s colors. And yet, that just might be the way it turns out.

If this is, indeed, Waino’s last start in St. Louis, he will doubtless be remembered as one of the all-time great Cardinals. I’m not a young man and I can say unequivocally that Wainwright is the best Cardinal pitcher of my lifetime. (Technically, I was alive while Bob Gibson pitched with the birds on the bat but I wasn’t alive for his greatness, so I stand by my statement.) He will still probably get 1 more start in Chicago next weekend and maybe it’s fitting, if that’s how his tenure as a Cardinal ends, that he take the mound against the team’s traditional rival. Waino has never backed down from a challenge and facing the division leader – the team’s rival – with a playoff berth on the line will surely bring out his best.

Regardless of how this season ends, or whether or not he makes the playoff roster, if this is it for Wainwright as a Cardinal he will immediately ascend to the pantheon of great Cardinals. He will one day be riding in to the stadium in a red convertible on opening day, sporting the same type of brilliant red sport coat adorned by Cardinal greats like Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, Bob Gibson, Stan Musial, and Red.

Thank you, Adam, for all that you’ve given Cardinal fans these last 13 years. Thank you for all that you’ve done to make the team better, to comport yourself as a hero both on and off the field, and for all you’ve done for the greater St. Louis community and the world.

Thank you Adam Wainwright.

The data and stats come courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Thank you for reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s