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Why Flaherty Should Start and Wainwright Should Relieve

Adam Wainwright can still be an elite pitcher - just not in the rotation.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a phrase that’s often tossed around about a multitude of Cardinals prospects: “He has nothing left to prove in the minors.” There’s no prospect in the organization who epitomizes that sentiment better than Jack Flaherty.

His spring strikeout totals had him trailing only guys named Scherzer and Bumgarner before his playtime started taking a backseat to the projected rotation. Called upon to fill Wainwright’s spot in Milwaukee, he struck out nine Brewers across five innings of one-run ball. In his thirteen innings at Memphis this season, he’s punched out sixteen while issuing just two walks for an obscene 28% K-BB%. At the major league level, that would currently fall between Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke on the leaderboard.

Ben Godar discussed in his piece yesterday that the club should at least move Michael Wacha to the 10-day DL and get Flaherty some turns in the rotation. While I’m not opposed to that by any means, I’m still of the mind that there’s a more permanent option that makes the most sense: Replacing Adam Wainwright.

Though Waino put in an admirable effort in the freezing cold at Wrigley on Tuesday, it still wasn’t very promising. The diminished velocity shown in previous starts remained, though not as drastic as his first appearance. The wind and cold temperatures kept a few balls in the park that should’ve been in the bleachers. I’d love an Adam Wainwright resurgence, but his first three starts this season haven’t been the kind to offer any assurance of that possibility. However, the organization seems committed to Waino, and, unless the Cardinals follow Craig Edwards’ suggestion, it looks to stay that way for the time being. A surplus of starters is the only factor keeping Flaherty 300 miles south down I-55.

While many of us pine for Flaherty taking the ball every fifth day, I wanted to take a look at his value as a fifth starter across all of major league baseball. This is a very St. Louis-esque problem to have: Too many pitchers, too little roster spots. First, I pulled the data on the weakest starter from each rotation – it’s important to note that this isn’t just the “fifth” starter, as even Wainwright is currently #2 in the Cardinals’ rotation. Some situations were a little tricky, as the 10-day DL has made confirming a rotation member’s longevity pretty difficult. I used a combination of the information at RosterResource and the various projection systems aggregated at FanGraphs to pull the data. Using Depth Charts projections for anticipated WAR, I then evened the playing field using a stat I’ll call fWAR/200, projecting the player’s anticipated value over 200 innings. Obviously, that milestone is well out of the reach of these pitchers, as the highest projected innings total for any player was 156, but it helps to get a true measure of value independent of the usage projected by Depth Charts. Here’s what I found:

Jack Flaherty is an upgrade in 90% of starting rotations, even if that upgrade may be minute. For some teams, the increase in fWAR/200 is over two wins. What this data initially does is perfectly illustrate why Flaherty came up in so many trade discussions this past offseason. However, it’s interesting to note the three teams where Flaherty isn’t considered an upgrade, according to my Depth Charts/WAR-standardization/Frankenstein’s monster. The first two are pretty obvious, as Houston’s rotation is impeccable, and the Dodgers are solid from top to bottom.

The third is Wainwright and the Cardinals.

Whether you agree with this projection or not, there’s a bigger picture here. The decrease in projected fWAR across 200 innings is just 0.25, which shows that Flaherty and Wainwright are valued at roughly the same level. The difference comes through three points:

  1. Flaherty brings no value if he’s not on the major league roster.
  2. It’s essential to his development that he start games.
  3. Wainwright is, at this point, better suited to the bullpen.

There’s no need to further illustrate the first two points. It’s clear that Flaherty can’t deliver value to St. Louis if he’s in Memphis, and there’s plenty of evidence that the organization is prioritizing getting him as many innings as possible. Point three can be shown through Wainwright’s performance in individual innings this season:

Adam Wainwright’s 2018 Inning-By-Inning Totals

1 3 12 1 1 6 0.350 0.193 0.00 1.05
2 3 15 4 2 1 1.150 0.446 9.00 8.72
3 3 14 1 3 3 0.757 0.351 3.00 9.38
4 2.2 14 5 1 0 1.045 0.462 3.38 4.18
5 2 10 3 1 1 0.844 0.376 4.50 3.55

The difference between the first and second innings is pretty illuminating. His K% goes from a dominant 50% in the first to 7% in the second. wOBA jumps from .193 to .446. FIP skyrockets, 1.05 to 8.72. I don’t even see this as a “first time through the rotation” issue for Wainwright, it’s an “initial inning” problem. Hitters are adjusting after their team’s first look at him.

But imagine how elite a reliever would be who could post season-long numbers like his 2018 first inning showing?

He becomes an immediate go-to option in the pen. Plugging in Flaherty and letting him work while Wainwright cleans house in relief would bring immensely more value to the team’s pitching staff, not to mention potentially lengthening Waino’s career. We’ve already seen him serve as a dominant reliever; that 2006 curveball at Shea Stadium is burned into our memories. Wainwright has said his goal for this season is to be seen once again as an elite pitcher. I think he has the potential to do so – just not in the rotation.