I got a few comments from my early ranking of NL starting pitchers regarding ranking Adam Wainwright in the top-5, so I wanted to go into a little more detail as to why he was ranked that high. Without any further ado, I present my case for Adam Wainwright as a top-5 NL starter and top-8 MLB starter.
For two seasons (from 2009 to 2010), Adam Wainwright was one of the top pitchers on the planet. From a fantasy perspective, he averaged 232 innings, 19.5 wins, a 2.53 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 212.5 strikeouts. From an underlying statistical standpoint...well, we'll get there shortly. Continuing on chronologically, in spring training of 2011, his elbow ess-ploded and he needed Tommy John surgery. He returned in April to not only pitch a full season in 2012 - he's likely to throw over 200 innings - but he was Adam Wainwright again. The only problem is that by looking at his raw stats (13 wins, 3.97 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 174 K), you wouldn't know it.
[Fun Adam Wainwright fact #1: the Atlanta Braves have gotten a reputation of drafting prep players from their backyard, but when they drafted Wainwright with the 29th pick in the 2000 draft, it was the first time the Braves ever used a first round pick on a Georgia prep player. Since 2000, they've used half of their first round picks on Georgia prep players (5 out of 10).]
Lots more after the jump...
Here's a chart that compares Wainwright's underlying stats (that he has control over) from 2012 to a composite of his underlying stats from 2009 and 2010:
Same Adam Wainwright. So you're probably looking at that chart and wondering why his raw stats suffered so much in 2012 compared to his previous two seasons. Here's a second chart full of stats that Wainwright does not have nearly as much (if any) control over:
Hopefully the picture is becoming a little clearer at this point. Now, I'm not going to sit here (yes, I'm sitting while I'm typing this) and blindly say that this was all luck, but it is clearly a factor. The other likely factor in these elevated rates is the fact that it takes about 18-24 months for most pitchers to regain their command/control following Tommy John surgery. Now, we know from looking at Wainwright's walk rate that control was not an issue for him; however, even slight trouble with command can lead to things like a higher line drive rate (he had the highest of his career in 2012 at 23.0% -- he had not posted another season above 20%) and home run rate (10.5% was his career high, never posting higher than an 8.5% rate in his career).
[Fun Adam Wainwright Fact #2: After the 2003 season, Wainwright was traded from Atlanta to St Louis along with two other pitchers for J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero. However, since the trade, he has not won the most games among those three pitchers in the deal. His 79 wins are 19 fewer than trade-mate Jason Marquis's 98.]
I believe that Wainwright's command will return to pre-surgery form in 2013 and his raw stats will follow suit, and this makes him a better candidate for your roster next season than any of the other players in the 5-10 range. And here's why, just remember I'm nitpicking as these are all great pitchers:
#5, Cliff Lee - This one was actually close to a toss-up for me and I really could be convinced either way. The only thing which swung me to Wainwright is that I'm more confident in Wainwright throwing 220 innings than I am with Lee, whether that's fair or not.
#6, Gio Gonzalez - His 3.5 BB/9 rate scares me and it scares me even more that it's the lowest he's put up in his career. Also, pitchers don't usually leave Oakland and post the best HR/FB rate of their career like Gio has this season.
#7, R.A. Dickey - I'm a huge Dickey believer, but even I need to see one more season of this strikeout rate before I move him into the top-5.
#8, Matt Cain - Whether it's fair or not, Cain has never won 15 games in a season (though he'll get a couple of tries at it this year). He's also never struck out 200 batters in a season. So while the consistency is great - and even underrated - he just doesn't have enough upside to go ahead of Wainwright.
#9, Madison Bumgarner - I know I shouldn't be that worried about the fact that he threw his slider more than 36% of the time in 2012, but I'm only human.
#10, Roy Halladay - The decreased ground ball rate (45.2%, the first time he's posted a rate below 50% in his career) scares me as he heads into the wrong side of his 30's. More fly balls and line drives in that ball park won't help his cause.
[Fun Adam Wainwright Fun Fact #3: Adam's middle name is Parrish and he wears #50 for the Cardinals. Two-time All-Star third baseman Larry Parrish also wore #50 during his first two seasons with the Montreal Expos. And they each made their first All-Star team in their 5th full season.]
Wainwright will now have two seasons in a row in which he's qualified for the #holytrinity of pitching (>7.0 K/9, <2.5 BB/9, >50% GB), and he only missed this designation in 2009 by two walks (seriously, two). Believe in the power of the holy trinity. Believe in Adam Wainwright.
My way too early line 2013 line for Adam Wainwright: 18 wins, 2.74 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 208 K's in 229 IP.