The Cardinals announced the following set of moves in advance of today’s game against the Nationals:
9/5/22: Optioned RHP Dakota Hudson to AAA Memphis. Activated RHP Jack Flaherty from the 60-day IL. To make room on the 40-man roster, designated RHP Junior Fernandez for assignment. 40-man roster still full.
Jack Flaherty has had a tumultuous past couple of years. After having his salary renewed by the Cardinals in both 2019 and 2020, he won a $3.9 million arbitration award last season. But he was only able to pitch in 17 games (with 15 starts), as he was lost in June of 2021 to an oblique injury he suffered while swinging the bat. After being moved to the 60-day IL in early July 2021 to make room for the waiver claim of Justin Miller, Flaherty was activated in August. In his third start back, he took 29 pitches to get out of the 2nd inning, and had to leave with a shoulder strain. Flaherty came back in late September, lasted one out in his first start, then threw an inning each in two other games out of the bullpen to close out the season. He did not pitch in the Wild Card loss to the Dodgers.
After Flaherty agreed to a $5 million deal for this season to avoid arbitration, it was announced in spring training that Flaherty was still dealing with shoulder trouble and would open the season on the injured list. This announcement caused a minor stir. John Mozeliak said that part of Flaherty’s shoulder trouble stemmed from a SLAP (superior labrum anterior posterior) tear, and Flaherty tweeted “lol” about the disclosure. Jack clarified in the press that he was diagnosed with bursitis after receiving a PRP injection, and that the trouble was caused by mechanical issues that flowed from his oblique injury the previous season. He said the SLAP tear was irrelevant, as he had been pitching through it for a few years.
Sent to the 60-day IL this May to clear a 40-man roster spot for Nolan Gorman, he was activated on June 15th, but you could tell that something wasn’t right. He walked nine batters in eight innings pitched over his three starts, and went on the IL again with a “dead arm,” after lasting only two innings pitched in his final start. Later, he was moved to the 60-day IL again to make room for T.J. McFarland’s activation from the COVID-19 Related IL, and was reported as having persistent inflammation and discomfort. He was not eligible to be activated until August 26th. In the meantime, he’s made five rehab starts across AA and AAA, and has pitched 20 innings. He’s lasted longer every time, culminating in his last outing on August 31st for AA Springfield against Witchita, where he threw 102 pitches over 6.2 IP, allowing 7 hits and 2 walks to 9 strikeouts. With Flaherty able to last that long and recover, the Cards have decided to insert him in the starting rotation on the belief that a healthy Flaherty would be better than either Dakota Hudson or Jake Woodford. Flaherty has one more year of arbitration eligibility for next season.
People have been making excuses for Dakota Hudson for years. Yeah, he doesn’t miss bats and he walks a lot of guys, but that’s actually the plan, see, because he keeps the ball on the ground, the Cards have had great infield defenses, so it doesn’t matter, and he’s actually great because pitches to the defense. Umm, no. He’s been one of the worst pitchers on the staff this season, and the worst starter by far, as Baseball Prospectus gives him a DRA- of 131. This means according to their all-encompassing pitching metric, Hudson has been 31% worse than league average. He has one of the lowest whiff rates in the game, but Adam Wainwright actually has the lowest whiff rate in the game among all qualified pitchers. So what’s the problem?
First off, Hudson walks almost as many batters as he strikes out. Hudson’s K-BB% is 3%, which is the third worst figure among all pitchers in the game who have thrown at least 50 innings, and the worst among pitchers who have thrown 100 innings. That makes him heavily reliant on the results of his sinker, his bread-and-butter pitch that he throws about 36% of the time. The pitch has below average tail, but above average drop. Hudson has a consistent release point with all his pitches, and his barrel rate allowed is actually a tick below league average. But Statcast’s run value metric rates Hudson’s sinker as a very poor pitch this season. The run value metric expands on the ideas presented by the run expectancy tables and base/out states by incorporating pitch-by-pitch data (ball and strike count) and batted ball data to try to estimate the effectiveness of an individual pitcher’s pitch in his arsenal. A negative number is good, and a positive number is not so good. For this season, Statcast gives Hudson’s sinker a 9, which is the worst that pitch has ever been for Hudson, and rates as the 5th worst figure among all pitchers that have thrown sinkers this season.
The velocity of Hudson’s sinker has gone down over time, as he has transitioned from the bullpen to the rotation and now in coming back from Tommy John surgery. It will take a longer look under the hood than I have time for here to fully diagnose the problem. Hudson’s sinker has been getting hit harder than it has ever been before, but I can’t confirm that he’s getting unduly burned by the pitch itself, at least on balls in play. Out of 169 batted ball events on his sinker, Brooks Baseball lists 43 line drives, or 25.4%. Hudson’s overall ground ball percentage is the lowest it’s ever been at 52.8%, but he still has a 60.4% ground ball rate on the sinker. Even when he throws it in the zone and it’s hit (132 times), he still gets a ground ball over 58% of the time. The problem may simply be that he walks too many people with the pitch, as Fangraphs credits him with 30 walks on the pitch in only 219 plate appearances, and gives batters a .427 OBP on the pitch, which would be the worst mark by far in Hudson’s career. For what it’s worth, Hudson’s slider has also been a negative pitch for him, and he has not been nearly the whiffs on that pitch that he has been accustomed to getting.
Whatever the problem, the Cards prefer to keep him stretched out as a starter in Memphis, and given the similarity between his walk and strikeout rates as a starter, that’s understandable. Hudson has never been optioned since cracking the major league roster back in late July of 2018. If this were the 2016 season instead of the 2022 season, he would have had to clear what was known as optional assignment waivers, because this option took place more than three calendar years from his first appearance on the active roster. But those were not necessary, since optional assignment waivers were abolished beginning with the 2017 season. The Cards have announced that they plan to keep him starting because they would like to add him as the 29th man for the September 17th doubleheader against the Reds to make what will be a necessary spot start. When the rule change was originally announced for 28-man rosters in advance of the 2020 season, 29th men for doubleheaders were not supposed to be allowed. They were allowed in both 2020 and 2021 due to COVID, but I did not expect them to be allowed this season. MLB and the union have been making things up as they go along the past couple of years, and it looks like they will be allowed this season. I was mistaken on that score when describing September roster expansions in my last article.
Because the club decided to add DeLuzio to the 40-man and active rosters on September 1st, a 40-man roster trim had to be made to accommodate Jack, and the Cards chose to DFA Junior Fernandez. Fernandez has frequently been plagued by control issues throughout his career, but balanced that out with a greatly increased strikeout rate, at least in 2019, when he rocketed up all the way from High-A to 13 games in the majors. Touching triple digits with his fastball and at times featuring a nasty changeup, Fernandez had the raw tools to potentially stick in the back end of a bullpen, and has performed decently in AAA in terms of peripherals. While there were times this season that he looked like he had it turned around, in his opportunities overall in MLB, he’s shown too much difficulty in finding the strike zone, and he’s been hit too hard at both levels the last two years. Fernandez can’t elect free agency in lieu of an outright assignment, but he’s been in organized baseball long enough that he will be declared an automatic Rule 9 minor league free agent at the end of the regular season. Fernandez has enough tools that the Cards could have at least taken Fernandez to spring training next season, and I can understand the argument that it seems like a waste to essentially have the 40-man spot go to someone like DeLuzio instead. But Fernandez will be out of options after this season, and the Cards must have figured that they wouldn’t be able to keep him on the roster next year anyway. Another option the Cards had, but didn’t take, was to recall RHP Jake Walsh and put him on the major league 60-day IL. He’s been out with an arm injury since June. But that would have involved paying Walsh at the major league split rate to not pitch.