A total of 571 pitchers have appeared in at least one game in the majors this year. At 39 years and 253 days old, Adam Wainwright is older than 569 of those whippersnappers. He’s 15 days younger than Cleveland reliever Oliver Pérez and about a year and change younger than Tampa Bay starter Rich Hill.
And there are 149 pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings so far in 2021. Wainright’s average fastball velocity of 89.6 mph is tied for 136th of those 149 hurlers (thanks, FanGraphs!), which places him in the lowly sixth percentile among all MLB pitchers (thanks, Baseball Savant!).
And yet … take a look at the complete-game rankings since the start of the abbreviated 2020 season. In 17 starts, Wainwright has three complete games, which is tied for the first in the majors, with Phillies co-ace Aaron Nola and Dodgers co-co-co ace Trevor Bauer.
In an era of new-school approaches to pitching, Wainwright has become a king of an overlooked — but still very valuable — aspect of the game.
“I’m old. Old-school, too,” Wainwright told SN in a postgame Zoom after his complete-game effort against the Phillies on April 26. “Pitching five or six innings is not getting the job done, in my opinion, you know? Pitching a minimum of seven is a starting pitcher’s job, in my opinion. Six innings is … I’m not going home overly excited about a six-inning performance. When I walk off the field after pitching nine, I feel like I did my job.”
It’s 2021, of course, and with last year’s introduction of seven-inning double-headers, not all complete games — or no-hitters, as Madison Bumgarner can attest — are created equal.
Wainwright threw 25 innings in his three complete games (9, 9 and 7). Bauer threw 22 innings (7, 7, 8) and Nola threw 22 (9, 7, 6). That’s not to knock Bauer or Nola, of course — they pitched every inning allowed to their team by the rules of those games — but just to say that there is a difference between the complete-game totals.
So let’s look at it this way: Over the past two seasons, 26 pitchers have thrown at least nine innings in a game. Only two players have done that twice: Wainwright and his former St. Louis rotation mate, Lance Lynn.
“It’s still my favorite thing about pitching,” Wainwright said, “being able to go out there and get those last three outs.”
He fell two outs short of his third nine-inning complete game — and fourth overall — in his past 17 starts on Sunday. The veteran carried a shutout into the ninth against the Rockies, on 99 pitches, but after striking out Trevor Story — on, what else, a signature curveball — to open the frame, he gave up a single to Ryan McMahon and a walk to Charlie Blackmon and manager Mike Schildt came to get him, at 113 pitches. Ryan Helsley finished the shutout.
The complete game has become a rarity, as starting pitchers are more focused on missing bats, recording strikeouts and throwing max effort (or near that) on every pitch. Only one pitcher since 2000 has recorded double-digit complete games in a season (James Shields, with 11 in 2010), and only three pitchers — Wainwright (22), Clayton Kershaw (25) and Justin Verlander (20) have at least 20 total CGs since 2010.
It’s quite the change in pitching philosophy, of course. In baseball history, 97 hurlers have finished their careers with at least 10 seasons of 10 or more complete games. No NL pitcher has recorded even three complete games in one season since Johnny Cueto in 2015, when he had five.
In 1986, Fernando Valenzuela led the NL with 20 complete games, a year after Bert Blyleven led the AL with 24. Unless something dramatically changes down the road — like, five-inning doubleheader games and seven-inning “regular” games — it feels safe to say that no pitcher will ever again approach 20 complete games in a single season.
The irony is, complete games are probably more beneficial to a pitching staff now than they’ve ever been. With starters regularly throwing only five or six innings, tops, bullpens are being worked harder than ever. A full day of rest for everyone is a huge benefit.
But that isn’t the goal. Throw hard. Strikeouts are better than groundouts. And that’s not just the “new wave” of pitchers, but the coaches and managers and front offices that are teaching their pitchers to maximize the impact of each pitch, sacrificing the quantity of how many pitches they are able to throw in a single game.
Wainwright has not been swayed by new approaches.
He knows what he does well, how to use his stuff most effectively, and he does not stray from that approach.
“There are tons and tons of ways to get outs in big league baseball,” he said. “It’s not all about throwing hard, and that’s the way I have to pitch.”
It’s about throwing smart, in a way that works for him.
“It’s just a mindset. Mad Dog (pitching coach Mike Maddux) always says it’s a choice, getting ahead. Strike One is a choice,” Wainwright said. “Try to get as many 0-1 and 0-2 counts as I possibly could. That’s the name of pitching. You can do a lot of cool things.
“The key to pitching is controlling count. And when you control counts, stay ahead in the count 0-1 and 0-2 … if you watch the great pitchers around the league, Zack (Wheeler) did it today, and Kershaw, Scherzer and deGrom, these guys, the superstars, they’re 0-1 or 0-2 on every batter. There’s no secret how you get outs, make it easier on yourself. And that’s what carries you deep into the game, too.”
In the game against the Phillies, Wainwright was at 87 pitches through seven innings. He needed just seven to get through the eighth inning, allowing him a shot at the ninth. I asked Schildt what makes Wainwright so efficient, and why he trusts him to get the last five or six outs of a game so often.
His rapid-fire answer: “Pitch-maker. Throws strikes. Multiple pitches for strikes. No walks, which allows him to go deep into the game. A lot of early outs. Swings told the story. He kept guys off-balance pretty much all night. Cutter good, fastball good. Signature breaking ball good. Mixed in some changeups. In control of everything he was doing all night. Easy to ride with a guy with that kind of stuff, and that kind of experience to go with it.”
For Wainwright, everything works off his curveball, a pitch he said he uses “12 different ways.” When he tosses up a wicked-breaking curve — his spin rate ranks in the 86th percentile — at 73 mph, that 89 mph four-seam fastball looks faster than it really is. And he rarely throws that 89 mph cheese over the middle of the plate.
When your average fastball is a tick below 90 mph, the edges of the strike zone are your friend. Adam Wainwright lives this philosophy. pic.twitter.com/wGe1gBSvyr
— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) May 11, 2021
One of the reasons starting pitchers have an earlier hook is an analytic-driven trend to take out a pitcher before he faces an order a third time. And the numbers do show an advantage for hitters, in general, the third time they face a pitcher in a game. It makes sense. Familiarity favors the batter. But that’s part of the fun for a veteran like Wainwright.
“Sometimes, you can do the same things over and over again because guys have holes in their swings or approaches you can exploit,” he said. “And sometimes you’ve gotta to do something different. … I know he’s thinking there’s no way in the world I would to do that, so that sounds like it might be a good thing, as long as it stays within your strengths. That’s the chess match that is pitching, starting pitching especially.
“The real fun is in the third and fourth time through the order. That’s where the real thinking man’s game begins, and that’s where I really relish every opportunity I get a chance to do that.”
The Cardinals hope he has a chance to do that for another 20-something starts this season, and then a couple more times in October. And then, maybe, one more time in 2022? Probably too early to talk about that, though.
“I have a great time outperforming expectations,” Wainwright said. “That is something I really relish. A lot of people saw me a few years ago and thought I was done, rightfully so, by the way, and each time I’m pitching, I know there are people out there who think I’m too old to go out and pitch nine innings. I’m having fun.”