15 August 2019

Wain You're Wright, You're Right

I don't know if this really means anything or not, but it's something I've been noticing all season because - after a decade-long hiatus from the practice to be a dad* - I've started playing fantasy baseball again.  I finished 5th last year in a 12-team league of mostly strangers who never talk (trash or otherwise) and almost never trade, which I figured was not too bad for someone who had been paying attention to baseball but not PAYING ATTENTION the way you have to if you want to be competitive in a Fantasy League. 

I mean, I'm still a dad, but my 8 and 11 year olds don't take two hours to rock to sleep every night anymore, so I have a smidge more time.  

Anyway, because I'm playing again (currently 3rd in my league, though honestly I'm closer to 7th than I am to 2nd) I look at all kinds of things when trying to decide whether or not to start a player on any given day.  Particularly starting pitchers, as in a 5 x 5, head-to-head league, a couple of bad starts can really ruin your week.  Most of the info available is either not very useful, like batter vs. pitcher splits, which almost always have too small a sample size to be meaningful, or are so obscure and inexplicable that you can't use them to justify a decision. 

It may very well be true that so-and-so has hit .375 with seven homers and 15 RBI in Tuesday afternoon games this year...but do you want to count on that??  A few years ago I wrote about how AJ Burnett was terrible whenever he pitched for the Yankees on national TV, but just fine when his starts were broadcast only locally.  No good reason for it that I could detect, but there it was. 

But sometimes, there may be something to these splits.  Case in point: Adam Wainwright. 

Wainwright is a seemingly known commodity, albeit an aging one.  Having been in the majors for 15 years, he's nearly 38 now, and had struggled with injuries the last few seasons, but he's basically been healthy in 2019.  He finished 2nd or 3rd in the NL Cy Young Voting four times, but he also missed all of 2011 and parts of 2008, 2015, 2017 and 2018 due to various ailments, including Tommy John surgery and a torn Achilles tendon. 

This year his overall stats seem eminently mediocre: 8-8 4.35 ERA, 118 Ks, 49 walks and 15 homers allowed in 120 innings of work.  The league as a whole allows slightly fewer walks and slightly more homers, plus Busch Stadium is a decent pitcher's park (park factor of 94, where below 100 favors the pitcher) so his adjusted ERA is 97, just 3% below average.  None of this is unusual for an aging, once-nearly-great, occasionally injured starting pitcher.     

What's unusual is how he's gotten there:

Home 6 2 2.19 11 65.2 58 17 16 6 23 2 68 1.234 9.3 2.96
Away 2 6 6.96 11 54.1 62 42 42 9 26 4 50 1.62 8.3 1.92

At home, Wainwright is the perennial Cy Young contender he was half a dozen years ago, albeit without the requisite longevity, averaging only 6 innings per start.  His best ERA in his heyday was a 2.38, and his best ERA+ was 155 (2.42 actual ERA), back in 2010 when the NL averaged slightly fewer runs per game.  

But on the road, he's a disaster.  You know who else is 2-6 with a 6.96 ERA right now?  Drew Smyly, who was so bad that he got DFA'ed by the Rangers, lasted about three weeks with the Brewers before getting released again, and had to achieve two decent and two mediocre starts with Philly just to get to that level.  That's pretty bad.  

Put another way, Wainwright's home/road opponent slash lines are as follows:

Home: .238/.311/.369
Road: .298/.383/.510

For perspective, that means hitters on the road against Wainwright are about as productive as Justin Turner has been this year (.292/.375/.506) whereas his opponents at home are Jake Bauers (.233/.308/.379).  If his name doesn't ring a bell it's because he was sent back to the minors at the end of last month when the Indians, so desperate to improve on his abysmal production, traded away their second best starting pitcher for a known head-case outfielder in Yasiel Puig and a DH waiting to happen in Franmil Reyes.  That's also pretty bad, which of course means Wainwright has been quite good at home.  

The how or why is the real question though.  One thing for certain is that this is not normal for Wainwright, at least not to this extent. His career ERA at home (2.83) is considerably better than that on the road (3.98) but not THAT much better.  Most players are better at home, and Busch Stadium is a pitcher;s park, so that makes sense.  

He has experienced severe splits like this before.  In 2017, his last (mostly) healthy season, he was 8-1 with a 3.08 ERA at home and 4-4 with a 7.32 ERA on the road.  Ditto for 2016: 3.20 ERA at home, 6.18 on the road.  He was hurt for most of 2015, and 2014 was the reverse: a 3.27 ERA at home, but a remarkable 1.72 on the road.  Before than, the two years before that were more of the same, modest splits with an ERA advantage around a half or three quarters of a run at home, the kind of thing you expect.  

So what's happened in the last several years?  How has Wainwright become so completely inept on the road in the last few seasons?  According to Fangraphs, since the start of 2016, he's got a 3.06 ERA in 264 innings at home, but a 6.58 ERA  in 220 road innings.  His walks and homers and hits allowed all go way up, his strikeouts drop.  

The biggest difference, looking at all his summarized batted ball data for the stretch since the start of 2016, is that his home run rate, and especially his homers per fly ball, go way up on the road.  His fly ball rate goes up slightly (about 4%) but also more of those flies become homers - about 50% more - which makes for a bad combination in this Era of the Rabbit Ball.  An aging pitcher who gets by on cunning and defense more than stuff is going to have a hard time in a league where the balls fly out of the parks like Titleists, and even moreso in parks that tend not to favor pitchers.  

I'm not really sure what it all means for Wainwright.  Maybe it means he's nearing the end.  He is almost 38 after all.  Maybe it means that Cardinals' manager Mike Schildt should just reverse-Ed-Whitson his ass and only start him at home, come hell or high water.  Maybe it means he has some kinda special signal system at home and can somehow figure out just how to pitch to everybody there, but has no such system on the road.  Maybe he and his wife (does he even have a wife???) are on the outs and he never gets a decent night sleep on the road.  

I really have no idea.  I do know that Wainwright has not pitched a Quality Start on the road since the end of June.  I also know that I will not be putting him in my starting lineup when he faces the Reds at Great American Bandbox tomorrow night.  

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