And now for a question that’s simultaneously the last thing the St. Louis Cardinals want to ask, and also the first thing they currently can’t ignore:

What if Adam Wainwright isn’t Adam Wainwright anymore?

The veteran right-hander didn’t look the part of himself—a proven ace with four top-five Cy Young finishesin his first two starts of 2016, and the trend continued into his third outing Saturday. Against the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium, Wainwright helped turn an early 4-0 lead into a 9-8 loss by allowing seven earned runs on 10 hits and a walk. He struck out only two.

After he missed almost all of 2015 with a torn Achilles, it all adds up to a less-than-triumphant return for Wainwright. In 16.1 innings, the 34-year-old has been touched up for 15 earned runs on 22 hits. He’s faced 78 batters and walked more of them (nine) than he’s struck out (seven).

And no, it’s not just the numbers that send up red flags.

“I’ve made more mistakes these first three games than I have entire seasons I feel like,” Wainwright said after Saturday’s game, via Joe Harris of “The only way I’m not going to come out of this is if I get down on myself and start pouting around about it.”

And so it goes. Wainwright wasn’t happy with how he pitched in spring training. He then sought answers after he struggled in his season debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates. After that, he was still frustrated after his second start against the Atlanta Braves.

For now, the season is still in the heart of small-sample-size country. But when both the numbers and the man generating them are signaling something’s not right, the notion must be taken at face value.

Wainwright did provide a silver lining Saturday. He cruised through the first three innings, and overall he had better stuff than he did in either of his first two starts.

One of the complaints Wainwright voiced to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after his second outing was that he wasn’t “getting everything to the correct position to drive the baseball,” which partially showed in his fastball velocity.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, this leads us to the silver lining:

Wainwright didn’t suddenly start lighting up the gun against Cincinnati, but he did take a step forward. And given that a fastball at 91-ish miles per hour and a cutter at 87-ish miles per hour is right about where Wainwright was with his heat in 2014 and 2015, that’ll do for a sign of progress.

Trouble is, this velocity spike didn’t do Wainwright much good. He went into Saturday’s start with a whiff rate of just 6 percent and a strikeout rate of 10 percent. Only six of his 74 pitches (8.1 percent) against the Reds drew whiffs, and he struck out two of the 27 batters he faced (7.4 percent).

This is a reminder that even velocity reminiscent of what Wainwright had in 2014 and 2015 may only go so far. Though he was mostly successful anyway, he wasn’t missing bats or striking hitters out in those two seasons like he was when he had better velocity during his 2009-2013 peak:

  • 2009-2013: 9.3 SwStr%, 22.3 K%
  • 2014-2015: 8.8 SwStr%, 19.7 K%

That Wainwright was able to put up a 2.29 ERA across 2014 and 2015 was thanks a whole lot more to his pinpoint command. But as Ryan Boyer of NBC Sports notes, that’s another thing he’s struggling with:

You can look at Wainwright’s nine walks and say “Duh,” but even those are only half the story.

Wainwright himself said he’s been making too many mistakes, and the data bears that out. According to Baseball Savant, he was up with his pitches at the highest rate of his career in his first two starts. And as this Brooks Baseball chart can show, the pattern continued in his third:

It would be one thing if Wainwright were trying to pitch up to change hitters’ eye levels. But since he basically didn’t work down in the zone at all, that’s not what that looks like. This looks like a guy who just can’t find his release point.

Wainwright has definitely been trying to find it, telling Jenifer Langosch of that he even went as far as practicing in front of a mirror. But the way things are going, it’s possible he’s having the same issues he had in 2012. After missing all of 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Wainwright told Mark Saxon of that it took him half the season to get right again. After sitting out most of 2015, it could be deja vu all over again.

Or, Wainwright could be battling the effects of age. It drops arm slots just as easily as it drops velocity, after all. Here’s a graph that indicates this could be happening to Wainwright’s arm slot:

If this is what Wainwright is fighting against, it could be tough for him to emerge as the winner. In such fights, age is going to win more often than not.

This is not to say Wainwright is broken beyond repair. He at least seems healthy, and that’s not to be taken for granted at his age. And even without pinpoint command and the ability to miss bats, he and Yadier Molina are both smart enough that they could come up with a way for him to survive anyway.

But a non-broken starting pitcher who’s capable of surviving is not what the Cardinals need atop their rotation. That’s where they need an ace. And if Wainwright can’t be that guy, you wonder who can.

New addition Mike Leake is a mid-rotation starter all the way. Jaime Garcia is very good when he’s healthy, but his health comes and goes. Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez have ace-level talent, but the jury’s still out on whether they can handle the workload. Meanwhile, Lance Lynn is out for the year and John Lackey is a Chicago Cub.

The Cardinals knew all this coming into the season, of course, but they clearly figured it would all be rendered moot when Wainwright started pitching like an ace again. From the looks of things, though, that “when” may actually be an “if.”


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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