Adam Wainwright was easily one of baseball's most productive pitchers in 2009 and 2010. He finished third and second, respectively, in the NL Cy Young race in those years, and threw a combined 463 innings with a 2.53 ERA. His combination of strikeout stuff (8.3 per nine innings), control (3.5 K/BB ratio), and groundball tendencies (over 50 percent grounders) made his pitches anathema to opposing hitters.
Then came Tommy John surgery, and the loss of his 2011 season. Wainwright watched his team win the World Series from the dugout, thanks to the National League's top offense, and a strong season from Chris Carpenter. With Albert Pujols skipping town, Carlos Beltran signing with the Cardinals, and Wainwright's return, it looked like St. Louis was going to once again be strong in 2012, if not stronger.
Wainwright has struggled to begin this season, though. He's still striking hitters out (over a batter per inning), and he's having no trouble with his control 14 months after TJ. Home runs, though, have been a killer: Wainwright has also seen opponents go deep seven times in 26 innings, after giving up 15 in 200-plus innings more the last season he was on the mound. It's not because he's giving up more flyballs, either, as his lofty grounder rates still exist. It's just that the flyballs he is giving up are getting a complimentary tattoo from opposing hitters.
Wainwright's four-seamer is normally the pitch that is responsible for homers, but it's not alone this year. His sinker has failed to sink on more than one occasion, and his cutter, which previously saw a homer allowed on just three percent of balls in the air, has left the yard 33 percent of the time in 2012.
Struggles soon after Tommy John aren't a surprise, and given Wainwright still has most of his repertoire (and his control) intact, it's likely that these problems will subside the further into the season he gets. Luckily for the Cardinals, they have Lance Lynn to carry the rotation in the meantime.
Lynn started a few times in the middle of the 2011 season, but he was primarily a reliever for the World Champion Cardinals. He was excellent, too, holding opponents to a 541 OPS while striking out four times as many hitters as he walked in 24 frames. With Chris Carpenter on the shelf to begin 2012, though, Lynn once again got the call to start.
Won-Loss record might not mean much, but Lynn's isn't lying. He's 5-0 on the season, thanks to 30 strikeouts in 33 innings, and a 4.3 K/BB ratio. His 1.60 ERA isn't realistic by any means, and is a product of his .198 batting average on balls in play, but regress his season all you want: the right-hander has still been impressive.
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) tells the story of what Lynn's done, without having BABIP and his defense cloud the issue. It's based on what he's done himself: strikeouts, walks, groundballs, and the like. Lynn's 2.97 FIP is the kind of figure we're used to seeing from Adam Wainwright, so while the Cardinals have missed their normal ace, Lynn has made it so they actually haven't.
Lynn has been an impressive pitcher for more than the last month, as he used to start -- and succeed -- in the minors. He was originally a finesse guy with a two-seamer, but the 6-foot-5, 250 pound hurler made the transition into a power arm, switching to a four-seam fastball that sits in the mid-90s, even as a starter.
He posted a 3.47 FIP in his first full season at Double-A in 2009, along with a 2.92 ERA. While his follow-up season at Triple-A didn't go nearly as well when he left that shiny new four-seamer up in the zone too often, the 24-year-old bounced back in his second stint with Memphis. Over 75 innings, he posted a 2.92 FIP and struck out 64 batters in 75 innings while keeping the ball in the park.
Lynn isn't to be confused with an ace -- especially not after a handful of starts -- but he has seen success in the upper levels of the minors and in the majors since switching his repertoire to match what he looks like he's capable of. The fact he's throwing like this now, at a time when Wainwright isn't right and Carpenter is on the disabled list is huge for the Cardinals.
The Cardinals are 4½ games up in the NL Central without the real Wainwright or any Carpenter at all. At some point in 2012, it's likely that both of those arms will be back, and at full strength. The team will still have Lynn then, too, and at least one of Kyle Lohse or Jake Westbrook is likely to come back to Earth, meaning Lynn should get to keep starting. He might just be a mid-rotation arm in the long run, but that's enough to make the Cardinals dangerous in any series once the rest of the rotation is where it belongs.
PITCHf/x data courtesy of Brooks Baseball