Why Adam Wainwright Is Finally Poised for Cy Young Breakthrough in 2014

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 4, 2014

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright throws against the Cincinnati Reds in the third inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 25, 2014, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
Al Behrman/Associated Press

It'll be nothing new if Adam Wainwright comes close to winning the National League Cy Young this year. He's been there and done that, finishing third in the voting in 2009 and second in 2010 and 2013.

When will the ace right-hander of the St. Louis Cardinals finally win one? Shoot, why not this year?

Serious question, you guys. Why not this year? Wainwright is always good, but what we're seeing this year is him at his best.

And that sentiment applies whether you favor traditional stats or the newfangled sabermetric stats.

Regarding the former, Wainwright is not only rocking it in the three triple crown stats—wins, ERA and strikeouts—but in innings pitched as well. A dozen starts in, he ranks in the top five in the National League in each of the four categories:

Adam Wainwright's Wins, ERA, Ks and IP
NL RankT-14T-52

This is a good way to go about winning the NL Cy Young race, as placing in the top five of these four categories worked for Clayton Kershaw in 2013 and 2011, R.A. Dickey in 2012, Roy Halladay in 2010 and Tim Lincecum in 2009 and 2008.

Wainwright has to keep it up, of course. But him being who he is and him doing what he's doing, saying he can doesn't require going out on a limb.

He should at least continue to have the innings covered, as piling up innings is just one of those things Waino does. He's pitched at least 230 innings three times since 2009, making him the only National League pitcher to do so. 

And Waino should make it to the 230-inning plateau again in 2014. His 85.1 innings puts him on a roughly 240-inning pace. That's where he ended up last year when he led baseball with 241.2 innings.

That Wainwright is capable of eating so many innings helps explain why he's so good at racking up wins. He doesn't leave much for the Cardinals bullpen, preferring instead to take care of matters himself.

And I don't use the word "preferring" by accident. Though wins aren't as highly regarded as they used to be, Waino recently made it clear to Jesse Spector of Sporting News that he's still a fan:

Wins do mean something. There is an art to winning baseball games...Holding a lead is something that should be cherished. If you're winning a game, it usually means you're going deeper into the game to give yourself and your team a chance to win.

Whether we're agreeing or disagreeing with Waino on wins, let's give him some credit where credit is due. He's definitely been practicing what he preaches this season.

When Waino pitches with a lead, he's holding opposing hitters to an MLB-low .387 OPS. And while he hasn't encountered that many of them, FanGraphs says that he's also holding batters to a .000 average in high-leverage situations.

So innings and wins? True to form, Waino already has plenty. It will be true to form if he finds plenty more. Assuming he does, his Cy Young odds will be looking good by default.

But Wainwright also needs to keep his ERA low and his strikeouts high, which is our cue to look at how well his season is shaping up from a sabermetric perspective.

Let's talk about FIP. That's short for fielding independent pitching, and it calculates what a pitcher's ERA should be by assuming an average performance on balls in play and placing a special emphasis on strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs.

In other words, FIP is a solid way to tell if a pitcher is better, worse or as good as his ERA, and it can be useful in predicting what's going to happen with a pitcher's ERA going forward.

That brings us to Wainwright's FIP. It's 2.41, which is not only the best mark of his career as a starter, but the best mark among all qualified NL starters.

Quite the good look, that, as it says not just that Wainwright's 2.32 ERA is built to last, but that he's also even more elite than his ERA suggests.

How has Wainwright earned FIP's love? Like this:

  • He has a 1.79 BB/9.
  • He has a career-best (as a starter) 8.56 K/9 to go with it.
  • He's allowed only four home runs all year.

Wainwright's walk rate is in line with the 1.30 BB/9 he posted last year, and can further be traced to how FanGraphs has him throwing 48.0 percent of his pitches in the strike zone. That's up from 44.9 in 2013.

This also helps explain how Waino is accomplishing his career-best 67.9 strike percentage, and it also helps explain his elevated strikeout rate. Wherever there are more strikes, more strikeouts do indeed tend to follow.

That's one key. The other is not that he's getting more swings and misses, but that he's actually getting more called third strikes. Wainwright's looking-strikeout rate is up to 29.6 from 27.4 in 2013.

You'll be surprised to hear how, according to Baseball Savant, only four of Wainwright's 24 looking strikes have come on his trademark curveball. The bulk have come on his four-seamer, sinker and cutter, and this heat map shows how he's done a fine job of locating those for called third strikes:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.com.

Pictured here is partially the framing excellence of Yadier Molina, but also Wainwright the painter. There's not much in the middle of the strike zone.

This is how he's earned his elevated strikeout rate, which goes quite a way in explaining how he's earned his career-best FIP.

Granted, FIP isn't the end of the discussion as far as ERA alternatives go. There's also xFIP, a version of FIP that calculates how many home runs should be on a pitcher's record based on his fly-ball rate. Another is SIERA, which judges pitchers according to their strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates.

These two metrics don't like Wainwright as much as FIP does. His xFIP is 3.00, while his SIERA is 3.06. So what these picky buggers suggest is that his 2.32 ERA isn't as legit as FIP suggests.

However, these two metrics did like Wainwright a heck of a lot more in May than in the season's first month. If you look closely, perhaps you'll spot why:

Adam Wainwright's March/April and May Splits

No complicated explanation is needed for why it's good that Wainwright improved his strikeout and walk rates in May. That his fly-ball rate went down, though, is what xFIP wants to see. That his ground-ball rate went up, meanwhile, is what SIERA wants to see.

And these things didn't happen by accident. 

As Harry Pavlidis noted in a 2011 piece for The Hardball Times, the four-seam fastball is a friend to fly balls and an enemy to ground balls. And as Brooks Baseball can show, Wainwright took to using his less in the month of May. The upshot was that his other pitches allowed more ground balls.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Basically, what we're seeing in 2014 is Wainwright at his Wainwright-iest. It's good enough that he's doing the things he usually does, but it's even better that he's made himself harder to hit while making adjustments as he goes.

That's a master pitcher at work, and it's not so easy to look out across the National League pitching landscape and spot other pitchers who satisfy the Cy Young checklist quite like he does.

Johnny Cueto has a 1.68 ERA, but he's having a hard time picking up wins. Tim Hudson has a 1.75 ERA, but is lacking in the strikeout department. Julio Teheran has a 1.83 ERA, but the metrics warn that he's a big-time ERA overachiever.

It also helps that some National League elites aren't in a position to challenge Wainwright. Jose Fernandez is out for the year. Cliff Lee has an elbow injury of his own that's healing slowly. Kershaw missed a month with an injury, and (by his standards) has been up and down since his return.

So what's standing between Wainwright and the NL Cy Young? Between his pitching and the pitching of others, not much.

There have been several years when Wainwright has come close. This is looking like the year he finally gets there.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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