Adam Wainwright is easily one of the best Cardinals starters of all time, but what if he was a closer?
There is historical precedent. Wainwright began his career with the Cardinals as a relief pitcher. In 2006 he was, in fact, a middle reliever, the least glamorous position to occupy in the bullpen. One season-ending injury later and the Cardinals threw Wainwright into a late relief role that resulted in 9.2 scoreless innings over the course of 4 saves and 1 win.
If he was given a chance as a hybrid late reliever or just a pure closer, he could revitalize his year and provide some much-needed stability to the Cardinals’ shaky bullpen.
Remember Your Origin Story
In his first full MLB season, Wainwright produced a respectable 3.12 ERA as a reliever, and he had a higher strikeout rate than he did in any other season. He also had his highest average and maximum fastball velocities for the season.
Now, most of the issues that Wainwright is having are caused by poor pitch placement and declining movement on his off-speed pitches, but there are specific reasons that some pitchers are starters and others are relievers. Starters typically have a larger repertoire and greater stamina.
Starters in Relief Roles
As a result, when you put a traditional “starter” in a short relief role, they have an opportunity to be an athlete. They don’t have to maintain their pace in order to last 6 or more innings, and they can really let it loose and just throw.
Being in relief also means you don’t have to worry about the second time around the order if you do your job. As an auxiliary benefit, you keep Waino’s innings down without sacrificing all the value of a heavy 19.5 million-a-year contract.
Pitching in relief, Wainwrights would need to rely less on pitch variety and rather focus on a couple of quality pitches. Although he is known for his curveball, his cutter was his most effective pitch in 2016, and in relief, the cutter can become disproportionately powerful even when it is thrown with high frequency (See Rivera, 1995-2013).
Cardinals fans could also see a slight velocity improvement just due to lower pitches per appearance and the freedom that comes with shorter appearances. Feed them a steady diet of cutters, fastballs, and bring back the slider. Either improve the curve or scrap it.
Why the Slider?
Adam, Wainwright has thrown a total of 1 slider, for a strikeout I might add, since 2009. In his career, he has an opponent batting average of .193 throwing it. I expect he stopped throwing it because it causes elbow discomfort and it may have been related to his 2011 Tommy John surgery.
Regardless, at this point, something needs to change, and with his natural arm slot and his comfort with the cutter tells me he still has the potential for a powerful slider without having to change too much. With his curveball on the decline and a change-up still non-existent (despite Spring Training experimentation).
Most of this is in the realm of fun and interesting hypotheticals due to the politics of major league baseball, but nonetheless, I think a drastic change like this is necessary to change the current trajectory of the season.
Wainwright is a big tall body, and we haven’t seen him in a relief role in almost a decade. Changing his function could be the spark that gets him back on track, but starts can be restrictive especially when you are struggling to perform.
Wainwright has expressed the desire to improve, and putting him in a relief role could give him the freedom he needs to recapture his former brilliance. And remember, the bullpen doesn’t have to be a demotion. Besides, maybe coming in to close will help him remember the good old days on the mid 2000s Cardinals before he had a beard. Hell, he already tried shaving it.
I love old time baseball, but sometimes you just have to break out of tradition and make something magical happen. Go Cardinals!
Photo Captured by Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports