Baseball BeatFebruary 28, 2011
Adam Wainwright and Bert Blyleven
By Rich Lederer

Adam Wainwright tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow and is scheduled to undergo Tommy John surgery today. The normal rehabilitation time for pitchers following this reconstructive surgery is approximately one year, although many pitchers don't fully recover for two years. As a result, if everything goes well, Wainwright could return for the opening of the 2012 season.

The St. Louis Cardinals righthander skipped his final start in 2010 due to what the team described in a press release last September as a "right forearm muscle strain." He had experienced a tightening sensation in his elbow during his previous two starts after sleeping awkwardly on it the night before his 19th victory. Wainwright suffered a partial tear of the same ligament in 2004, missing a large portion of that season only a handful of months after the Redbirds had acquired the former first-round draft pick from the Atlanta Braves in a trade involving J.D. Drew.

Today's operation will be performed in St. Louis by team physician Dr. George Paletta, who has also repaired the elbows of Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Kyle McClellan. Ironically, the latter pitcher is the most likely internal candidate to replace Wainwright in the rotation this year. Meanwhile, Carpenter, who won the National League Cy Young Award in 2005, will regain his status as the club's ace. Garcia placed third in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting last season after posting a 13-8 record with a 2.70 ERA in 163 1/3 innings.

Wainwright, 29, who may possess the best curveball in baseball, might be following in the path of none other than Bert Blyleven. The Hall of Famer was 31 when he hurt his elbow early in the 1982 season. He appeared in only four games that spring and had an uneven campaign in 1983, missing time in July, August, and September. Blyleven bounced back in 1984 and enjoyed what Bert believes was the best year of his career. He won 19 games for the sixth-place Cleveland Indians despite missing four starts in May and June due to a freak foot injury. Blyleven finished third behind two relievers (Willie Hernandez and Dan Quisenberry) in the AL Cy Young voting.

In Jeremy Greenhouse's final article for Baseball Analysts, he pointed out the similarities between Blyleven and Wainwright.

When you think of big curveballs nowadays, you think of Adam Wainwright. Over the last two years, Wainwright’s curveball has been worth 45.7 runs according to FanGraphs, 20 runs better than the runner-up. Wainwright doesn’t shy away from the pitch, throwing it a quarter of the time, the third-highest rate in the Majors. However, nobody can match the 40% rate Blyleven estimated that he threw in 1978. Blyleven was known for freezing batters with his curve, and Wainwright had at least one such famous moment. Both Wainwright and Blyleven threw their curveballs in unusual fashions. According to pitch grip expert Mike Fast, Wainwright's curve "is not quite a standard curveball grip in that his index finger is completely off the ball. Most pitchers lay it down alongside the middle finger on the ball." Blyleven, on the other hand, said that he "holds both his fastball and curveball across the seams." Blyleven recalled Sandy Koufax and Bob Feller pitching the same way, but at the time knew of no one else who did. I asked Mike Fast, and he is unaware of any current pitcher who exhibits this trait. Here's an image of a potential Blyleven curve.

As shown below, Blyleven amassed about 1,750 more innings than Wainwright through their 28-year-old seasons. Nonetheless, the rate stats are nearly identical.


Buster Olney spotlighted Wainwright's usage of his breaking ball in a recent column (Insider subscription required). He threw 1,471 breaking balls in 2010, ranking fourth behind Brett Myers (1,619), Carpenter (1,589), and Dan Haren (1,482). At 44% of his total pitches, Wainwright placed third behind Myers (47%) and Carpenter (45%) among hurlers who threw over 1,500 pitches. According to Olney, the league-average mark was 24.8%. Buster also reported that the league batted .183 against Wainwright's breaking stuff.

Although Blyleven avoided surgery on his UCL, he may serve as a proxy for Wainwright's future performance. If so, look for Wainwright to struggle next season, put up one of his best years in 2013, and perhaps lead the league in innings pitched in 2014 and 2015.

As the saying goes, short-term pain, long-term gain.