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Jack Flaherty is the Right Man for This Job

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Tonight’s game was made for pitchers like Flaherty

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Last year’s emergent ace Jack Flaherty will take the mound for the Cardinals in a decisive game 3 in San Diego tonight. A lot is riding on Flaherty’s start, as he’ll be looking to reverse the momentum after a crushing loss to the highly talented Padres last night. The Cardinals had a 6-2 lead in the 6th inning and needed to bridge the gap to the next round of the playoffs with 11 outs. Instead, the Padres flexed their muscle and crushed Cardinal pitching in a 9 run barrage from that point forward. Instead of preparing for the NLDS, the Cardinals still have one more game to win before they get there. There’s no better pitcher than Jack Flaherty for the Cardinals to start tonight.

Flaherty entered the season with Cy Young-sized expectations. He exits the regular season with that reputation having taken a small hit. Flaherty didn’t quite produce the way fans, baseball talking heads, and the analytically-inclined expected. His 4.91 ERA was good for an ERA-minus that was 14% worse than average compared to the league, and was fourth best on his own team amongst starters with 30+ innings pitched. His FIP was better at 4.11, a solid 94 FIP-minus, but pales compared to the 3.46/80 from 2019. Suddenly, the Cardinals were assigning him game 3 instead of game 1 in the opening round of the playoffs. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though.

Whatever you thought of Jack Flaherty in 2019 should probably still be your opinion. I am Jack’s true story for 2020.

First, let’s dispense with the idea that his quality of stuff was somehow worse this season. It was almost completely identical.

Jack Flaherty, 2019 v. 2020 Velocity and Spin

Pitch 2020 Velo 2019 Velo 2020 Spin 2019 Spin
Pitch 2020 Velo 2019 Velo 2020 Spin 2019 Spin
4Sm 94.0 94.3 2199 2222
Slider 84.4 84.8 2347 2381
Curve 78.2 77.3 2417 2501
Sinker 92.1 92.0 2038 2009

You might be tempted to note the spin being down a little, but remember- spin is related to velocity. What you want is the same ratio of RPM per MPH, and it was extremely close. That’s the same pitcher.

If you paid attention to the Cardinals and Flaherty this season, it’s not hard to figure out what went wrong with his 2020 numbers. The Brewers lit him up like a Christmas tree on September 15th in Milwaukee en route to an 18-3 drubbing. His pitching line looked more like something from the storied craptastic annals of positions players pitching, not one of baseball’s best young pitchers. His line: 3 IP, 8 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 2 BB, 6 K, 2 HR. With two doubleheaders the day before and two the day after, skipper Mike Shildt hoped for innings from his ace that day and he absorbed more damage in his last inning than would typically happen. Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun both tagged him for a homerun in the first inning. He left the game in the 4th with nobody out and runners on, trailing 7-1. Reliever Jake Woodford did Flaherty no favors, allowing both runners to score. It was a disaster.

In a normal season, a mostly healthy starting pitcher will have 25 to 30 starts and 170 to 200 innings. Bad starts happen but there’s ample opportunity across six months to water down the hideous performances with average, good, and great ones. This year’s 58 game schedule offered no such opportunity, so Flaherty’s Milwaukee nightmare became an albatross.

Let’s take a look at Flaherty’s season if we omit that start in Milwaukee. I know cherry picking is wrong, but that game is an outlier if ever there was one. Flaherty’s game score that day was 11 (50 is average). That’s the worst in his career. He had only been under a 30 game score twice in his career before that day. His next lowest game score this year was 40, and you have to go all the way back to July 2nd, 2019 to find a Flaherty game score under 40 (37 in Seattle). Cherry picking is bad but the Milwaukee game was pretty clearly an anomaly.

With that in mind, let’s reconstruct Jack Flaherty’s 2020, but we’ll use a magic wand to erase that start. Here’s his new 2020 compared to his 2019:

Flaherty: 2020 (minus 9/15) vs. 2019

Category 2020 2019
Category 2020 2019
FIP 3.65 3.46
FIP- 85 80
RA/9 3.13 2.84
K% 28.67% 29.90%
BB% 9.33% 7.10%
Hr/FB% 18.80% 13.80%
Avg. GmScr 57 61

He was a little worse, but it’s much closer to his brilliant 2019 than his 4.91 ERA would lead you to believe. His 2020 wonkiness, other than the Milwaukee start, comes down to a few more walks, an unsustainable number of his flyballs allowed leaving the yard, and fewer runners stranded. It’s not in the table, but his LOB% this year collapsed to 68.8% from 83.3%. Even with those other factors, he was only about 5% worse this season compared to last season when we use FIP-minus. And he was still 15% better than the league. Take a Cy Young contender and make them 5% worse and you still have a very impressive pitcher.

Flaherty’s next start will be his biggest, and the team’s biggest, of this crazy season. Bad days happen, as the Milwaukee start can attest. They just happen a lot less often to the Jack Flahertys of the world. Rest assured that Flaherty still fits that description. And he is the right man for this job.