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Offseason wishlist for two pitchers

Hoping for changes in two young Cardinal arms to propel them forward in 2019.

MLB: Washington Nationals at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Offseason wishlists are often reserved for acquisitions and spending. John LaRue broke this down in a recent story for VEB, highlighting how star players can impact a roster. Given the Cardinals financial abilities, LaRue’s argument holds water and kickstarts some optimism in the event Mike Girsch were to swing away this offseason.

But this kind of offseason wishlist is different. It’s a breakdown of things I want to see two specific Cardinal pitchers do for 2019. One want is to find optimism once again. The other is to selfishly make a fantastic rookie even better.

Luke Weaver

The want: his old changeup

It is hard to understand how optimistic fans and analysts were back in March about Weaver’s potential. Six months did a number on Weaver’s stock and Cardinals fans noticed. The hardest thing to swallow is the lack of alarming peripherals when looking at 2018.

Weaver’s swinging strike rate remained steady, he generated more ground balls and his pitch usage was largely consistent with 2017.

With all that said, Weaver’s strikeout rate plummeted. He gave up harder contact and failed to locate pitches and strand runners. Maybe he wanted to pitch like it was 2017 in terms of mix, hoping success would follow once again, but it did not. The bullpen became his home around the midway point of 2018 and his high-floor profile started to crack.

Speculation swirled early that if Weaver refined his curveball he would take another step forward. What we took for granted—and rightfully so—was Weaver’s changeup maintaining it’s success from 2017. Instead hitters slugged .470 on the pitch in 2018 compared to only .250 in 2017. Weaver’s ability to neutralize right-handed bats disintegrated, leaving only moderate success against left-handed hitters as his safety net.

Multiple sites (Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball and Fangraphs) show an increase in the velocity on Weaver’s changeup. This could have affected the velocity differential off his fastball, subsequently cutting into his ability to miss bats with the pitch.

The more concerning characteristic is the flattening of the pitch. He lost about 11 percent of his vertical movement and added about 13 percent more lateral movement on the pitch. It started to mimic a two-seam fastball more than a swing-and-miss changeup. His release point wavered slightly on the pitch as well. All this created confusion as to whether he simply lost his feel on the pitch or if something else was bugging him (sustaining velocity makes me suspect undisclosed injuries weren’t an issue).

Weaver’s role for 2018 is uncertain. He is most valuable as a starting pitcher and has the ability to become a successful one at the major league level given his past success. The loss of his only plus offspeed pitch has created an major issue and to regain organizational trust, it must remerge. It’s reassuringly clear where his mediocrity in 2018 stems from and the issue seems fixable. A more concerning 2018 would have been harder hit balls with his pitch shapes largely unchanged. Thankfully, that is not the case.

After Weaver reverts to the 2017 version of his changeup, we can talk about refining his curveball push him another step forward.

Jack Flaherty

The want: an even better curveball

Flaherty’s 2018 was fantastic. To criticize it in any manner is unwarranted. He became the only trustworthy pitcher in the Cardinals rotation next to Miles Mikolas, even if his last few starts showed some signs of regression from a stellar August.

Baseball Savant’s new “pitcher arsenal” creates a visual guide for how a pitcher’s offering plot themselves against league averages.

Smooth circle: Flaherty — Gear: League Average — Red: Fastball — Orange: Sinker — Green: Changeup — Yellow: Slider — Blue: Curveball
Baseball savant

Flaherty’s slider is flatter (less vertical break) than league average, but it’s total break at a harder velocity than league average is what makes it a deadly pitch. This is his bread and butter. It’s effective versus both left- and right-handed hitters and allows him to have nearly even platoon splits.

Not all things stay consistent year to year. There is a chance we’re taking Flaherty’s effectiveness versus left-handed hitters for granted. (Remember what happened with Weaver’s changeup?)

To aide potential regression, the pitch I’m most intrigued by is Flaherty’s curveball. Shown in the plot above, the pitch breaks in both directions—down and glove-side—greater than league average. In the style of Flaherty’s sweeping slider, his curveball is a more aggressive iteration with results I hope can eventually catch his slider.

This curveball is used primarily against left-handed hitters (17 percent versus 5 percent against right-handed hitters). Any further development could lead to another stellar offering and hedging against the handedness of hitter most breaking-ball pitchers struggle to neutralize early in their career.

Location is another variable to hope for with Flaherty’s curveball. If he can hone its break and un-tap consistent location like he does with his slider, the sky could be the limit. The break is there, the velocity on the pitch is there, and it graded out as average throughout the season as well.

In a perfect universe, Flaherty has the confidence to mix an improved curveball to right-handed hitters and essentially becomes a three-pitch hurler to either side of the plate. Even if he never has exceptional control, this would create a high level of confidence in a 22-year-old arm with even more room for growth and projection.