It’s good to have Jack back. At various times in the past two seasons, it has seemed like the Cardinals best starter has been Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, or Jordan Montgomery. Those are all effective arms, but they’re not 2019 Jack Flaherty and they’re probably overmatched as a no. 1 starter in a playoff series.
Jack Flaherty has been penciled in as that starter for the past few seasons, but poor health hasn’t allowed him to take the next step that many expected after a dominant 2019 season (4.7 fWAR).
With the right-hander healthy again, can he take the next step? Should he even be in the playoff rotation? Let’s look into his first two starts since returning from the IL and speculate wildly (or reasonably, because we here at VEB always allow cooler heads to prevail).
First Start — 9/5 vs. Washington (5 IP, 6H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6K)
Everything stands out here. More strikeouts than innings pitched. Only one walk. That’s just a good line overall.
He wasn’t super efficient (91 pitches to get through 5 innings) but that’s okay. That’s a really encouraging first outing back after missing over 2 months and making just three prior starts all season.
One of the most impressive things about the start was his fastball. His velocity sat at 94 mph and he got 5 whiffs and a whopping 11 called strikes, which gave him a 28% whiff rate and 34% CSW rate (percentage of pitches that are a called strike or a whiff).
94 mph is actually above Flaherty’s fastball average last season! The only year he broke 94 was in 2019, when his fastball sat 94.3 mph.
Flaherty is a fastball dependent pitcher. So much so that last year, his four-seam usage topped 50%! That’s a lot of fastballs. And if a pitcher is going to throw that many fastballs, they had better be good. That makes it important for him to maintain his fastball velocity.
That is where Flaherty struggled a bit. His fastball may have average 94 mph, but it ranged between 89.7 mph and 97.1 mph. Unsurprisingly, the slow fastballs are where he struggled.
Flaherty threw 16 fastballs (sinkers and four-seamers) below 93 mph. Of those 16, exactly half (8) were balls, while another was a hit-by-pitch and two more went for hits. So, for those of you counting at home, that’s 12 of 16 that were bad results and he didn’t even get a single whiff in that velocity range.
9 of those 16 pitches came in the first two innings, though, so it’s not like Flaherty lost his velocity late. Rather, he simply had inconsistent velocity.
That’s not the only thing that was inconsistent, though. Flaherty’s fastball movement was all over the place. It’s vertical break was between 14 and 24 inches while it’s horizontal break was between 0 and 7 inches.
Maybe that’s inconsistent mechanics. Maybe it’s something else. Right now, it’s just something to watch.
For perspective, here’s what Jose Quintana’s movement and velocity ranges were in the next game.
Jose Quintana Fastball Range
|V Movement (in)||21||15||6|
|H Movement (in)||6||1||5|
Flaherty had a velocity range of 7.4 mph, a vertical movement range of 10 inches and a horizontal movement range of 7 inches with his fastball.
Things fluctuate during the game, but Flaherty simply wasn’t very consistent in his first start.
Regardless, that’s to be expected. The fact that he was able to miss so much time and then come back and still have a strong fastball is a good sign. Yes, it was the Nationals, but all you can do is beat who’s in front of you, and Flaherty certainly did that (even though the Cardinals didn’t win the game).
Flaherty mostly worked fastball/slider in the contest with the two pitches making up a whopping 82% of his arsenal. He featured 11 knuckle curves and got two whiffs on four swings, but the slider is really the other pitch worth looking at from this start.
It got 7 whiffs on 21 swings, for a solid 33,3% whiff rate. It also limited hard contact (78.5 mph average exit velocity) on 9 balls in play. Again, just like his fastball, it was effective.
And, just like his fastball, it was inconsistent. It had a velocity range of almost 5 mph, which helps explain the large discrepancies in vertical movement (Min — 31 in, Max — 43 in). That’s about right for Flaherty. His velocity matches 2021 and his movement was similar as well.
Again, he was effective but inconsistent. Thats the story of his first outing back
Second Start — 9/10 @Pittsburgh (5 IP, 3 ER, 2 HR, 4 BB, 0K)
Remember earlier when I said “it was the Nationals”? Well, now I’m going to say “it was the Pirates.” And he didn’t exactly dominate. That’s why good starts, even against bad teams, shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Pretty much nothing went right for Flaherty in his second outing. He didn’t get whiffs, he didn’t throw strikes, and he got hit hard. That’s just how it goes sometimes. And after the inconsistency of his first outing, it’s not too surprising that he had a bad start. Don’t hold it against him too much.
If there are any positive to take from this game, it’s that everything got a little bit tighter. His velocity was between 91 and 95 mph and stayed strong at 93.7 mph on average, his movement patterns were more inconsistent, and his slider velocity was more consistent too.
Those are the positive signs that lie beneath the poor outing.
The problem for Flaherty was that he threw this pitch.
And this one.
In both instances, notice how Yadi’s glove drifted from the edge of the plate to the middle. That’s on Flaherty. He missed his spot both times and missed over the plate. If he wants to pitch effectively, he can’t do that.
But, also it’s not a stretch to say that he’s probably rusty and it’s going to take him a few games (or more than a few) to really start looking like his old self consistently.
This is why it’s good that the Cardinals have built up a huge division lead with time still on the calendar. Flaherty can get some starts and if he gets bombed, it’s no big deal.
While we’re all watching Pujols charge toward 700 and Yadi and Waino break the battery record, make sure to pay attention to Jack too, because how well he pitches may determine the ceiling of the playoff rotation.
Should Flaherty Be Included in the Playoff Rotation?
With that being said, I should discuss whether or not Flaherty should be in the playoff rotation. And, if you’ve been reading my articles here at VEB, you probably know what I’m going to say — It’s too early to tell.
Flaherty needs every start he can get down the stretch to get himself right before the playoffs. I think we all want Flaherty taking the ball to start a game in October, but the team also needs to be realistic. If he isn’t ready, then he could still fill a valuable role as a reliever who can pitch in higher leverage spots and cover multiple innings.
Right now, it’s to see anyone but Jordan Montgomery being the top starter in the playoffs. Beyond that, it’s a tough choice between Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, and Jose Quintana.
I’ll be shocked if the team doesn’t let Wainwright start in the playoffs this year. It’s a good bet that he’ll be in the rotation. From there, Quintana (3.34 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 3.1 fWAR) has the statistical advantage over Mikolas (3.42 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 2.5 fWAR).
That’s a stout group for Flaherty to overcome, which is a good thing for the Cardinals. That means they don’t need to force it. If Flaherty isn’t ready or isn’t pitching well enough then he doesn’t need to start.
A strong deadline filled the gaps in the rotation well enough that anything Flaherty adds is just a bonus, not a necessity.
Now, I don’t want to sell Flaherty short. He has the most upside of any pitcher of the group, and it’s not particularly close. But there’s a difference between upside and production. The playoffs are about production.
Now is the time to let Flaherty stretch it out and see what he can do, but he needs to prove himself. He shouldn’t simply be granted a spot on the playoff rotation. I don’t think he will be either. I think that’s why the Cardinals grabbed two good starters at the deadline instead of J.A. Happ and Jon Lester type arms.
We should all be excited about the potential of Flaherty, but we should be even more excited about the potential of this St. Louis Cardinals team in the playoffs.