The right-hander has a chance to have the best season by a 39+ year old starting pitcher since John Smoltz in 2007.
Adam Wainwright’s gem against the Pirates on Saturday night made this a timely article, but it is worth exploring just how uncommonly great Wainwright has been this season.
Currently, Wainwright has thrown the second most innings (169 2/3) of any pitcher in the majors. He has also thrown the joint-most complete games (3) in the league and is tied for 10th in fWAR (3.4) among pitchers. While these numbers would be good for any pitcher, they are extraordinary for someone who is about to turn 40.
In order to put in perspective just how good Waino’s season has been, let’s take a look at past 39 year olds and see how they have done.
Since 2010, there have been 16 individual seasons from pitchers aged 39 years or older who have thrown at least 120 innings (not including Adam Wainwright). Of those 16 seasons, 11 came from Bartolo Colon and RA Dickey. The other five came from Tim Wakefield, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Tim Hudson, and Rich Hill.
Of these seasons, Bartolo Colon’s 2013 season stands as the best season of this group. In this season, Colon compiled 4.0 fWAR in 190 1⁄3 innings. The next best season was Hiroki Kuroda’s in 2014, when the right-hander compiled 3.1 fWAR in 199 innings.
In general, these pitchers struggled to combine effectiveness and large quantities of innings pitched. Most of these pitchers, like RA DIckey and Bartolo Colon (at the end of his career), threw plenty of innings but were nothing more than average at best.
Of these 16 individual seasons, though, only one has the chance to be better than Wainwright’s 2021 season, and that is Colon’s previously mentioned 2013 season. Wainwright has already compiled more fWAR this season than any of the other 15 seasons thrown by pitchers his age.
Waino does have a chance to top Colon’s 2013 season, though. He has averaged 0.131 fWAR per start, which is just behind Colon’s average of 0.133 fWAR per start in 2013. The Cardinals also have 34 games left, which should give Wainwright the chance to start around six more games, barring injury or some kind of change. If this were to happen, then he would start two more games than Colon did in 2013. If Waino keeps up his current statistical pace, then he will have the chance to eclipse 4.0 fWAR, which would give him (arguably) the best season by a pitcher aged 39 years or older since 2010.
Also in comparison to Colon’s 2013 season, each pitcher has three complete games and Waino has averaged 6.53 innings per start while Colon averaged 6.34 innings per start. Clealy, each pitcher had an ability to take the ball and pitch deep into games, but Wainwright has been a bit better in the regard than Colon.
When discussing innings pitched, it is important to mention the general decrease in innings pitched by starters in recent history. In 2013, 36 pitchers threw 200 innings or more. This means that Bartolo Colon finished the season 48th in innings pitched. It is impressive that he was able to throw so many innings at such an advanced age, but he also played at a time when this was more common. In 2019, just 15 pitchers eclipsed 200 innings. Thus, it is perhaps more impressive that the soon-to-be 40-year-old Adam Wainwright is second in the majors in innings pitched this season. If he makes six more starts in 2021 and continues to average 6.53 innings per start, then Wainwright will finish the season with nearly 209 innings pitched (nearly 20 innings more than Colon in 2013).
In 2021, Wainwright has accumulated a 2.97 ERA and 3.51 FIP. In 2013, Colon tallied a 2.65 ERA and 3.23 FIP. Here, it is important to note that the average ERA in 2013 was 3.86 and the average ERA in 2021 is 4.22 This change is due to increased offense in 2021 as there have been .33 more runs scored per game on average in 2021 than in 2013.
When compared to the league average, Wainwright’s ERA is 125 points lower and Colon’s ERA was only 121 points lower.
Depending on how the rest of the season plays out, it is quite possible that Wainwright will end up having the best season by a starting pitcher aged 39 years or older since 2010. When the limit is extended before 2010, Wainwright has nearly outperformed Mike Mussina (3.6 fWAR) and Randy Johnson (3.6 fWAR) in 2008, and it is not until 2007 that the 39/40 year old John Smoltz (5.5 fWAR) has a significantly better season than Wainwright.
Greg Maddux and Curt Schilling also outperformed Wainwright at the end of their careers, but that is to be expected considering that they were elite pitchers that were among the best of their generation. The fact that one has to go all the way back to those pitchers to find examples of old pitchers with better seasons that Waino’s 2021 season is impressive.
So, if Wainwright can eclipse 4 fWAR by the end of the season, then his 2021 will compare favorably to Bartolo Colon’s 2013, especially when considering the increase in league-wide offensive output in 2021. If he is able to do that, then he will have the best season by a 39+ year old starting pitcher since John Smoltz in 2007, and the second 4+ fWAR season by a 39+ year old starting pitcher in that same time frame. The right-hander may still be undecided about playing in 2022, but given his performance this season, he certainly has plenty to offer the St. Louis Cardinals if he decides to play for one final year.
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