QUESTION: Adam Wainwright obviously has struggled in his first three starts coming off of elbow surgery. What should fans be looking for tonight as a sign that Wainwright may be getting back on track ... or that this recovery could take longer than expected?
Wainwright was better in his last start but his command eroded after about 50 pitches. He’s facing the same team that battered him for 8 runs less than 2 weeks ago. It was, as 'Waino’ called it, “a perfect storm of horribleness.” As noted in an earlier Cooler, this is a process most expect to take at least 2 months. Velocity and command aren’t there yet. Wainwright has yet to last 6 innings in either an exhibition or regular season start following February 2011 Tommy John surgery. A quality start (at least 6 innings, 3 earned runs or less) would represent a major step.
Longer than expected? How about just as expected? Last Friday in the paper, I attempted to outline just what Wainwright is being asked to do here less than 14 months after elbow surgery. Sure, Chris Carpenter returned to the majors, like Wainwright, 12 months after the Tommy John procedure. But he was limited and even appeared in relief. It wasn’t until the next season – more than 19 months after surgery – that Carpenter put together a complete season that included leading the NL in ERA.
Wainwright is fond of pointing out that Tim Hudson finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting the season after his Tommy John surgery. That’s semi-true. It was his first FULL season after surgery. But that season started 19 months after Hudson’s surgery, and by the time it finished he was more than two years removed from the procedure.
If the Cardinals and Wainwright reach October, that is when he’ll be 19 months removed from surgery. Wainwright’s early success in spring skewed expectations. But his final few starts of spring and his first three starts of the regular season show there’s a reason why managers, teammates, and peers said it could take a year for Wainwright to feel right. Because it probably will. That’s the timetable.
People should expect Wainwright to do a better job of keeping the ball down in the strike zone and just generally exhibit better command. He is very well aware that this ball park is the one in which he scored his last victory, No. 20, in September 2010.
Keep an eye on his pitch movement tonight. Does his fastball have some life? If so, then Wainwright could be moving down his road to full recovery. If his fastball sits flat, then that 89 to 91 miles per hour velocity will leave Adam vulnerable to more abuse. At times Wainwright has hit his spots with his pitches and at times he hasn’t. That will be another area to watch tonight. That Chicago lineup is not the most dangerous in baseball, but several of those hitters have had some career success against him.
KEVIN WHEELER (Host of “Sports Open Line” on KMOX)
To put it simply, when he’s right Wainwright will stop allowing home runs. He’s been getting too much of the middle of the zone with too many of his pitches and that has led to damage being done. He’s already allowed 5 home runs in 13 2/3 innings. Compare that to 2010 when he allowed 15 home runs in 230 innings and you see the stark difference.
His walk rate is higher than it was before surgery so I think we can see a pretty distinct pattern here. Wainwright’s pitches aren’t going where he wants them to.
People are noticing the dip in velocity because it pops up somewhere in the stadium or on TV after every pitch. It’s a problem but it’s not the most significant one. In fact, he’s still getting plenty of swings and misses despite the fact that he’s using his curveball less than he had before. He’s got 14 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings so he has the ability to get the job done. It’s a matter of fine tuning his command.
LARRY BOROWSKY (Editor of the “Viva El Birdos 2012 Baseball Annual”)
I’d like to see him get through 6 innings without yielding a gopher ball. When he was pitching off a 92-95 mph fastball, he could get away with leaving pitches up once in awhile. But now that he’s only throwing 88-92 mph, it’s easier for batters to time him and take advantage when his location is faulty. He’s not going to regain his old dominance until/unless his velocity returns, and that will take a while even in a best-case scenario. Until then he’s going to have to rely on pinpoint location at the bottom half of the strike zone, a la Westbrook and Lohse. Wainwright has never been that type of pitcher before, but it may be the only way he can survive in the short term.