NL Wild Card Game: Is Adam Wainwright Going To Join Max Scherzer In The Hall Of Fame?

by 24USATVOct. 7, 2021, 2 a.m. 21
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A Hall of Fame-bound pitcher is slated to take the mound in the top of the first inning of tonight’s NL wild card game.

Max Scherzer, already on the Cooperstown fast track before he was traded by the Nationals to the Dodgers at the trade deadline, continued his march towards inner-circle status by authoring a dominant post-acquisition stretch for his new team (7-0 with a 1.98 in 11 starts for the Dodgers, who won each of his outings) on par with Doyle Alexander in 1987, Randy Johnson in 1998 and CC Sabathia in 2008.

But is 40-year-old Adam Wainwright — starting for the visiting Cardinals against the Dodgers in the winner-take-all tilt — also on his way to joining Scherzer in the Hall of Fame?

Queried about his Cooperstown credentials during the Cardinals’ visit to Citi Field last month, Wainwright grinned while seemingly acknowledging his counting numbers — he has 184 wins and 2,004 strikeouts — are not going to measure up to most of the starting pitchers enshrined in Cooperstown.

“Me talking about it is going to inflame some people — ‘He’s not a Hall of Famer!’” Wainwright said. “I try to stay out of it as much as possible.”

Seconds later, told his numbers stack up well to wild card-era pitchers who are either already enshrined or have solid Hall of Fame cases, the famously good-natured Wainwright — a night removed from saying he struck out Jeff McNeil looking to leave the bases loaded because “I like nostalgia” and he wanted to give Mets fans “…what they want” — grinned again.

“Write some stories about it!” Wainwright said. “Rile people up.”

It may rile up some traditionalists who are married to the idea pitchers must win 300 games and strike out 3,000 batters to be considered Hall-worthy. But in evaluating Wainwright by the standards of the modern starting pitchers, he has a path — albeit a narrow one that requires him to sustain his late-30s rebirth for at least one and possibly two more seasons — that seemed impossible when he was in the midst of an extended sunset phase late in the 2010s.

Wainwright went 41-28 with a 4.58 ERA (an ERA+ of 90, or 10 percent below league average) from 2016 through 2019. The pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, in which Wainwright went 5-3 with a 3.15 ERA in 10 starts, amounted to a fourth lost season for the right-hander, who missed all of 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery and made just seven appearances (four starts) due to a torn Achilles in 2015 before he was limited to eight starts by right elbow inflammation in 2018.

Replacing those lost or disrupted seasons with three average Wainwright seasons — a 13-7 mark with 138 strikeouts over 164 innings — would have Wainwright at 223-126 with 2,418 strikeouts.

Of course, there’s no prorating stats when it comes to evaluating Hall of Fame candidates, and so Wainwright appeared to be in the company of the likes of Roy Oswalt — Wainwright’s most similar pitcher per Baseball-Reference.com — Cliff Lee and former teammate Chris Carpenter as pitchers who had terrific peaks but lacked the length for serious Cooperstown consideration.

But Wainwright proved his solid 2020 wasn’t a brief mirage. He went 17-7 with 174 strikeouts and a 3.05 ERA in 32 starts spanning 206 1/3 innings — the third-highest total in the majors. He was the first pitcher aged 39 or older since Mike Mussina in 2008 to throw at least 200 innings with an ERA+ of 125 or better.

The wins, strikeouts, ERA and innings were his best since 2014, which appeared to be the last full year of his peak. He went 119-66 with a 2.96 ERA from 2007-15, a span in which only Kershaw had a lower ERA among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched.

A similarly impressive 2022 — and perhaps 2023, though upon signing a one-year extension with the Cardinals last week, Wainwright strongly hinted he would retire alongside longtime batterymate Yadier Molina following next season — added to his 2017-14 peak would nudge him ever closer to a Cooperstown-worthy body of work and at the least underline the kind of company he’s already keeping.

Wainwright is one of 39 pitchers to record at least 180 wins, 2,000 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.40 or lower while making at least 350 starts and throwing at least 2,300 innings. Twenty-eight are enshrined in Cooperstown — everyone except Wainwright and his fellow active hurlers Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, the latter trio of whom are expected to glide in Cooperstown, as well as Roger Clemens, Tommy John, Luis Tiant, Jerry Koosman, Rick Reuschel, Kevin Brown and Vida Blue.

Winnowing the 180/2,000/3.40/350/2,300 field down to just wild card-era pitchers makes for an even more exclusive group: Wainwright, Scherzer, Verlander, Kershaw, Clemens plus Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay and Pedro Martinez.

Wainwright’s candidacy as an elite pitcher of his time should strengthen during the five years between his retirement and his first appearance on a Hall of Fame ballot. The only active pitchers behind Wainwright (2,375 2/3) in the 2,000-inning club are 36-year-old David Price (2,103 1/3), 35-year-old Johnny Cueto (2,034 1/3) and 32-year-old Madison Bumgarner (2,034). Only Price (2018) and Bumgarner (2019) have pitched enough to qualify for an ERA title once since the 2017 season.

Price (155 wins) is the only active pitcher within 30 wins of Wainwright, with Cueto (135) and Bumgarner (127) much further behind. Gerrit Cole (117 wins at age 31) and Chris Sale (114 wins at age 32) are the likeliest active pitchers to approach Wainwright’s total.

Halladay and Martinez combined to win five Cy Youngs had more dominant peaks than Wainwright, but their status as first-ballot Hall of Famers serve as evidence the electorate is already modifying its standards for Hall-worthy starting pitchers.

“I think Hall of Fame credentials might change a bit,” Wainwright said. “No one’s winning 300 games again, probably, Maybe there will be a couple guys that have a chance — Clayton’s got a chance, Max maybe. But it’s just not going to happen anymore the way pitchers are used now and the way free agency is and (how) careers go. It’s just hard to pitch that long nowadays, without injuries especially.

“But the guys that have got in recently just have been the best at the craft for a decade,” Wainwright said. “That seems to be a pretty good baseline.”

One Wainwright is a lot closer to establishing than perhaps even he realizes.

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