Earlier this week, I was marveling at Jacob deGrom’s last two seasons, and I noticed something. He’s on another level, one all his own, but take a look at these two mystery players over 2018 and 2019:
Mystery Player Comparison
Player A has been worth a whopping 10.9 fWAR and 10.7 bWAR over the past two years. He was the 5th-best pitcher in baseball by fWAR last year and the 11th-best this year -- in other words, he’s great. That’s Patrick Corbin, the Diamondbacks and Nationals stud. Player B? That would be Jack Flaherty.
Flaherty is on an unbelievable run right now, of course. He’s basically second-half Jacob deGrom, which is saying something:
A Pair of Aces
But as great as it is to have a crazy run like Flaherty’s, I think that it might be obscuring how excellent Flaherty has been. For example:
Another Mystery Player
Which of these two pitchers would you take? This one doesn’t seem obvious to me; Player B has little edges in strikeouts and walks and has allowed better expected contact quality. Player A has allowed better overall results, though, and the ERA- and FIP- numbers suggest that there might be some era adjustment nonsense going on in the xwOBA.
Player B is Max Scherzer’s 2016 Cy Young season, when he easily beat out Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks for a well-deserved second Cy Young. Player B -- yep, that’s 2019 Flaherty. This isn’t really a case of a guy having one hot half; it’s a guy whose full season line, which includes his first half scuffles, looks like a Cy Young winner in a season where deGrom didn’t go foolish.
Or, heck, let’s try another one, now that we’re playing around with different ways to show Flaherty’s dominance:
Yet Another Mystery Player
Both of these players are excellent starters. One was worth 5.2 RA9-WAR over this stretch, one 4.4, and they both did it with strikeouts. Player B is probably better; that’s Stephen Strasburg. Player A is Jack Flaherty. Oh yeah -- these stats go from the beginning of 2018 to the All Star break this year, ignoring Flaherty’s recent hot streak.
That’s the unspoken part of people talking about Flaherty’s recent form; he’s always been a dynamo. The second half of 2019 has obviously been a new peak in his form, but he was one of the best starters in baseball even before that.
We’re mostly Cardinals fans here, so I’m probably not shocking you with the fact that Flaherty has been an excellent starter these last two years. He’s 21st in fWAR over those years, tied with Miles Mikolas despite 44 fewer innings. If you prefer RA9-WAR, my personal favorite multi-season metric, he rises all the way to 10th, just behind Charlie Morton and Mike Minor. Baseball Reference has him down at 16th, while Baseball Prospectus has him just outside of the top 10.
The point is, this isn’t some young pitcher starting to put things together in the second half. Flaherty is working on a second straight season of being what Cardinals fans have longed for since Adam Wainwright hurt himself in 2015; a bona fide pitching star.
Here’s another one for you:
We Get It, You Like Mystery Players
On this one, I honestly don’t know who I’d pick. I’ve conveniently left out FIP, as it makes the two look rather different, but wOBA is a nice replacement. Player A? That’s Kerry Wood’s 1998 season, the one with the 20 strikeouts. Player B? That’s Flaherty in 2018. Strikeouts were less common then, which made Wood stand out quite a bit more, but it’s actually the most similar 22-and-under pitching season I could find.
Yes, 2019 second half Jack Flaherty is an absolute monster, one of the best ten or so pitchers in baseball. It’s easy to think of that as ephemeral, though. Miles Mikolas had a great season last year, and this year he’s a pretty decent number 2 or 3 starter. Heck, Luke Weaver had a nice little 2017, and managed to be as replacement level as his own facial hair in 2018.
But that’s not what Jack Flaherty is. He’s not a guy with okay underlying stats who walked into a lucky 0.97 ERA streak. His 2018 was a young ace starter kit. The first half of 2019 wasn’t much worse; he scuffled a bit with home runs, but his stuff kept playing. He had a 4.64 ERA and 4.75 FIP, sure, but his xFIP was a more reasonable 4.12, which works out to a 93 xFIP-. That’s something like second half Mike Soroka or first half Marcus Stroman.
It’s not exciting, and it’s not the kind of thing you dream about from your great pitchers, but being above average even when you don’t completely have it is an undervalued skill. Mike Minor, Madison Bumgarner, Rick Porcello, Dakota Hudson, and Sandy Alcantara are all pitchers who are exciting in one way or another and all had xFIP-’s above 100 in the second half.
Heck, everyone’s excited about Adam Wainwright’s 2019, and his xFIP- is 99, which means he’s delivered an almost exactly league average performance using a statistic that does a decent job stripping out luck. Jack Flaherty’s bad half was 7% better than that, and his second half xFIP- is 72 -- in other words, he’s 28% better than league average after regressing as much of the luck away as possible.
Some day, Flaherty is going to cool down from the hot streak he’s on. He’ll get a case of gopheritis, or he’ll lose his control a little bit, or maybe he’ll just go into a funk. There’s no predicting the future, but streaks always end. When he does struggle for a bit, though, it will be good to remember that Jack Flaherty is much more than just his streak. He’s a transcendent talent, one of the best young pitchers in a game going through a youth movement. You could have said all of that three months ago; now that he’s put together a sub-1 ERA for a few months, it’s just further confirmation.