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So Much Rests on Flaherty’s Shoulders

No one has more on the line in 2023 than Jack Flaherty. And no one can impact the Cardinals’ season more than Jack Flaherty.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

No one has more on the line in 2023 than Jack Flaherty. And no one can impact the Cardinals’ season more than Jack Flaherty.

Last Saturday I sat down with the ZiPS projections to try to provide a better-than-gut-feeling indication of where the Cardinals sit relative to the rest of the National League and the NL Central. The results were promising, with the Cardinals below the Braves but stacked up with the rest of the presumed NL contenders: the Dodgers, Padres, and Mets.

With the NL that tight, any number of positive things would have to happen to push the Cardinals to the top of that list and earn a first-round playoff bye. Dylan Carlson could take a major step forward in power and center field defense. Tyler O’Neill could return to his near-MVP caliber form. Lars Nootbaar could contend for the All-Star game. And that’s just in the outfield.

The problem, as I said Saturday, is that the floor of these upside players is already relatively high. Unexpected performance could push their expected WAR totals up 1-2 points, and those kinds of slim improvements are too easily negated by injuries or poor performance elsewhere on the roster.

The best place for the club to take a notable step forward is in the starting rotation where the Cardinals have one starter projected to be good (Jordan Montgomery) and a slew of average-ish starters above some encouraging injury depth.

One of those projected-for-average-ish starters is none other than former Cy Young contender Jack Flaherty.

In 2019, when Flaherty was the best pitcher on the planet for half a season, he earned 4.7 fWAR in just under 200 innings. ZiPS currently projects Flaherty for only 1.9 fWAR in about 104 innings. The difference between Flaherty’s last healthy season and his current 50th-percentile projections is about 3 wins.

That’s just enough upside in production potential – production we have seen before – to push the team from 95 wins (my current projection) toward 100 wins and the top of NL if a few other things go right.

The Cardinals don’t need Jack to make the playoffs or win the Central. But their World Series aspirations might rest on his shoulders.

It’s those shoulders that have kept Flaherty from reaching his own lofty expectations. As a young, high-upside, high-impact arm, Flaherty challenged the boundaries of financial equity for pre-free agency players. He consistently pushed the Cardinals for a higher pre-arbitration salary. He willingly took the club to arbitration hearings to maximize his earning potential. He’s rebuffed discussions of a team-friendly arb buy-out deal.

This strategy might have set Flaherty up for a massive, game-redefining contract once he hits free agency after 2023. That dream probably died with an oblique strain and shoulder impingement that stole production, playing time, and resume-building career numbers. Combined, Flaherty has only pitched 154 and 2/3’s innings over 32 starts since his monster 2019 season. Many of those starts came following lengthy rehabs and in a controlled, “stretching out” playing environment. Not surprisingly that has impacted his performance. In those 32 starts since 2019 Flaherty has a 3.90 ERA, a 4.36 FIP, and 1.5 fWAR.

As a third-year arbitration-eligible player, Flaherty expected a salary that would have easily eclipsed Jordan Montgomery’s $10M this season. Instead, he didn’t even bother taking his case before an arbiter and settled for a little over half that amount, reflecting his new status as a back-of-the-rotation, injury-prone arm with some upside.

Yes, Flaherty’s production while at his injured worst was still very much respectable. That should give us a reason for optimism. After all, if an injured, hurt, or “stretching out” version of Flaherty can still be an average starter by ERA and FIP, what is a healthy and stable version of Flaherty likely to be? Can he be what he was in 2019 again? Let’s find out!

What Made Jack Flaherty an Ace?

Sometimes pitching analysis is hard; you have to dig into all kinds of minutia to find the keys to a pitcher’s success or failure. That’s not the case with Flaherty. He’s a surprisingly easy study – which is often true of elite arms.

Like so many great pitchers, Flaherty was at his best when he missed a lot of bats, generating a high K rate and limiting the number of walks that he allowed. It’s often just that simple.

We can see how this developed by comparing his first full season to his dominant 2019 year.

In 2018, his first as a full-time starter, Flaherty was just 22 years old. He started 28 games and threw 181 innings earning 2.3 fWAR. That season he produced a K% of 29.6% and a BB% of 9.6%. He got more ground balls than fly balls but he wasn’t the prototypical Cardinals ground ball specialist. Instead, he specialized in something the Cardinals’ starters are historically terrible at: he missed bats.

Flaherty finished the season in the 84th percentile in Whiff%. He could elicit swings with an elite fastball/slider combo, even though he did not have elite velocity or spin rates. When you get a lot of swings and misses, you get a lot of K’s, not very many walks, and contact against you is generally weak. Not surprisingly, there’s an obvious correlation between a high whiff rate (84th percentile) and exit velocity allowed (85th percentile).

Remember, he was just 22. The next year, now a wily veteran, Flaherty improved other vital parts of his game. He added a tick of velocity to his 4-seam fastball and slider. He also displayed more command and control. Very little changed about his batted ball profile, but more velocity and better command only made him that much harder to center. His Whiff rate climbed. His exit velocity allowed dropped. His K’s didn’t change much but his walk rate dipped and his innings pitched soared.

He was an ace. And he earned every bit of his 4.7 fWAR that season.

That’s what we need to go hunting for now. The ace version of Jack Flaherty mixed a 94 mph four-seam fastball with a devastating hard slider and excellent command. That combination (plus the ability to mix in 3 other pitch types) generated a high level of swings and misses and very weak contact.

What was “Injured/Rehabbing” Flaherty?

Since 2019, in his limited appearances and controlled outings, Flaherty frequently flashed a lot of the same characteristics but the signs of injury and rust were also readily apparent.

From 2020-2022, Flaherty’s K rate fell from consistently over 29% to 25.3%. His walk rate rose to 9.6%. His Whiff% fell from a surprisingly high of 34.4% in 2020 down to 27.9% in ’21 and 25.5% in ’22. Flaherty’s fastball velocity also shifted. In 2020 his 4-seam averaged 94 mph – just a hair below his peak 2019 season. In ’21 that fell to 93.6 and 93.3 in ’22. Run values dropped steadily on those pitches. His fastball was a -22 run value in ’19 (elite) and was +8 in ’22 (below average).

Since his peak season, Flaherty has lost the ability to generate whiffs, limit hard contact (remember the correlation between whiffs and hard hit%), maintain control, and reach the upper registers of his velocity. That’s exactly what you would expect from a player who was either struggling with a nagging shoulder injury or rehabbing from such an injury.

Let’s timeline this sequence out, looking at how Flaherty’s performance metrics changed relative to the circumstances each season brought.

In 2020, Flaherty began the season essentially repeating what he was in ’18 and ’19, despite the topsy-turvy training environment of the COVID season. The ERA was high but that looks like a product of the very small sample size. Everything else about his velocity and rate stats were in the range of career expectations. 2020 should have been another very nice season from Flaherty.

2021 started the same way. It wasn’t until early June that he hit landed on the IL with an oblique strain. At the time, Flaherty’s K rate was 26.3% and his BB rate was 7.8% – that’s all a bit worse than ’19 and ’20 but within expected ranges, especially early in the season and for a pitcher who didn’t have many innings the season before. His ERA was 2.90. His FIP was 3.73. His fastball velocity was 93.6 and climbing as he stretched out. From May 1 through his injury a month later, Flaherty averaged 94.2 mph on his fastball. He was on his way back to dominance when the shoulder barked.

That set him out for two months; he returned to action in mid-August and just 6 more appearances. It’s here that we can see the full impact of his shoulder woes. His fastball velocity fell to 92.3 mph. His K rate was 26.9% and his BB rate was 9.0%. His FIP was 6.05. That’s what an injured pitcher looks like.

2022 didn’t change much. Flaherty arrived in the spring expecting to be healthy but was shut down early with persistent issues around his injured shoulder, which was listed as “right shoulder discomfort” and “right shoulder strain” on the official injury reports. He attempted a return to action in early June and that proved to be a terrible decision. He couldn’t generate K’s – just 14.3%. And he couldn’t control his pitches – 21.4% BB rate. His fastball velocity was now just 91.8 mph.

The Cardinals wisely shut him down again. Flaherty rested his arm for over a month and the club convinced him to stick with an extended rehab session in Memphis and Springfield before giving him one more chance in the rotation in late 2022.

“Healthy and Getting Ready” Late 2022 Flaherty

This is where things really started to turn for Flaherty but you have to look carefully to find it.

Flaherty’s overall stats in the six outings after returning for the end of 2022 aren’t that encouraging overall. However, they do include an outlier. In Pittsburgh during his second start back, Flaherty completely fell apart. He allowed three runs in 5 innings while walking 4 and not K’ing anyone. It’s the kind of appearance that you would expect from a pitcher with inconsistent starts over the last three seasons. It’s also the kind of outing that can radically skew a small sample size.

So, let’s acknowledge that it happened and then do a little before and after to see if there’s a difference in the stats that matter.

In the first start of his return to live action, Flaherty went five innings walking 1 and K’ing 6. In that outing, his fastball velocity was 93.9 mph. All of that was extremely encouraging!

The next start was his collapse in Pittsburgh. Take that for what it is.

Flaherty then got four more outings on the season. During this short stretch of limited outings, Flaherty raised his K rate to 26.6%. His BB rate was 10.1% – higher than he would want but not injury-indicating. His average fastball velocity was very good at 93.5 mph. His FIP post-Pittsburgh was just 3.68.

It’s just six outings. But it’s six outings that look an awful lot like Flaherty’s performance in April of 2021 when he was reportedly healthy but awful rusty after significant time missed due to the COVID season.

What does that tell us? Maybe, just maybe, Flaherty finally got healthy at the end of the 2022 season. He finally recovered most of his lost velocity, but still lacked the command/control that he needed to generate an elite level of whiffs and light contact. If that “almost back” kind of performance was more rust than residual injury, it’s the kind of thing that he might be able to knock off with his first fully healthy, full-go offseason in years.

There are a lot of maybes and mights in that sentence and hovering over it all is the specter of multiple seasons lost due to shoulder woes and the trouble that causes along his kinetic path.

I can’t sit here and tell you that the elite version of Flaherty is going to be back in 2023.

I can tell you that if you’re looking for a reason to believe he might be, the “end of 2022 is a lot like the beginning of 2021” narrative is the best I can provide.

Maybe Flaherty knocks a little more rust off this spring, finds that missing half mph on his fastball velocity, recovers his control, and starts hitting the zone just as frequently as he misses bats. If he does, then those 100-win hopes start to feel pretty good and he would resurrect his dreams of a mega contract.

Or maybe Flaherty has to live at a slightly lower velocity, with a slightly lower K rate, a littler harder contact, and few more walks. If he does, he still should be a well-above-average pitcher. Possibly still the best one on the staff.

Or maybe Flaherty’s shoulder barks again and he ends up closer to ZiPS’ conservative and injury-assuming projections.

I suspect we might see the middle option. If Flaherty is healthy, I would expect 2-3 months of rust-induced struggles followed by a few months of better performance and controlled outings late in the season due to his low innings totals the last few years. Maybe the end result is a repeat of his 3.86 FIP and 2.3 fWAR 2018 season if he can get through 150 innings.

Regardless, it all rests now on Flaherty’s shoulders. Hopefully, he’s finally healthy and ready for it.