On Monday afternoon the Cardinals faced the defending champion Houston Astros in a pointless spring game. It’s a game we’ll forget about by the end of the week. It’s a contest that will have no bearing whatsoever on the future of either team or any player on either team.
It’s a bad idea to make much of anything about anything that happens during such a game.
Yet, here we are. We have articles to write. And we finally have something like real baseball to write them about.
So, for now, at least, I am going to throw aside all my usual caveats about small sample sizes and statistical trends. All those things that we demand time to prove or disprove during the regular season, are, for today, subject to sweeping generalities based on a very small number of plate appearances and innings pitched.
I want to take 1 game that I couldn’t even watch – the 3/6 match against the Astros – and present 3 encouraging takeaways that might could maybe have an impact on the regular season. (Or not.)
Those three things are Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz’s first public spring starts and Dylan Carlson’s first spring homer. To the analysis!
Jack Flaherty – Fastball & Slider Velocity and Spin
A few weeks ago I wrote about Jack Flaherty and what made him such an effective starter back in 2019. How likely was it for him to recover that level of performance? Could he be the ace that this team needs?
Fastball velocity is one of the things that makes the difference between Flaherty the ace vs. Flaherty the really good pitcher. It was also one of the signals that he was physically off last season when struggling with his shoulder/arm woes. He needs to show that his velocity is at least somewhat back to where it should be.
When I went over to Baseball Savant after Monday’s game to check Flaherty’s stats, I was a little confused. Reports about his performance were all very positive, but Statcast showed a pretty notable decrease in velocity relative to his healthy self – 1.3 mph to be exact. Maybe he got outs but if he couldn’t dial up his heater, he wouldn’t be able to get those outs consistently.
Still, that measured decrease in velocity didn’t match the reporting. That’s a good sign that you need to dig into the fine details.
Historically, Flaherty throws both a 4-seam fastball and, at a much lower percentage, a sinking fastball. The first sign that there might be trouble with Statcast from Monday’s game was when it recorded 22 “4-seam fastballs” from Jack Flaherty with a 7 mph difference between his highest and lowest velocity thrown.
His hardest fastballs of the day came in the third inning when he threw 95.2 and 94.7 mph fastballs for a swinging strike and a foul ball. A few pitches earlier he threw his slowest recorded fastballs at 88.9 and 89 mph, getting a called strike and a foul ball.
Statcast even recorded him throwing a few changeups, which he does a few times per game. But one of them registered at over 89 mph.
Either something was up with Statcast. Or Jack Flaherty had some really wild things going on with his pitch offerings.
Here’s how I interpret that information.
First, Statcast is right about the data. The pitch information is almost certainly correct – spin, velocity, break. However, the software has to assign labels to those pitches, and that’s where the proverbial fly can get into the ointment.
I think Flaherty did throw a changeup. 1 of them. An 86.3 mph pitch to Yainar Diaz that has the right spin rates for his changeups in the past.
I also think that Flaherty threw several 2-seam/sinking fastballs – probably around 9 of them – that Statcast wrongly labeled as 4-seamers. The fastballs that were under 92.0 mph displayed significantly more vertical break than Flaherty’s upper-velocity fastballs. They also had quite a bit less spin. Both numbers would be (concerning) oddities for Flaherty’s 4-seam fastballs but are perfectly normal relative to his 2-seamers over his career.
That leaves 13 pitches in the 92.0-95.2 mph range that have very similar spin and velocity profiles to his normal, when-healthy, 4-seam fastballs.
You decide. Either Flaherty had only threw one time of fastball yesterday while exhibiting wild variations in velocity – something that would be very concerning and belied the actual reporting of his outing.
Or Statcast mislabeled Flaherty’s fastballs and changeups, and he had very normal-looking pitches that fit with the very positive post-game reports.
I think it’s clear that the latter option is the best. That allows us to put his 13 (give or take few) 4-seam fastballs in context with the rest of his career. If I use that 92.0 fastball as the cut-off, then his average 4-seam velocity yesterday should have been 93.3 mph.
4-seam fastball velocity by year (2018 forward):
That’s what we wanted to see. Flaherty’s 4-seamer is a little on the low side of his career but awfully close to normal considering the sample size and the calendar date. There’s no concern here at all. Instead, there’s reason to hope that he could add a little more velocity as he loosens up and heads toward the regular season.
What’s more interesting than fastball velocity on Monday was his spin rate on those pitches.
4-seam spin rate by year (2018 forward):
His average spin rate on those 13 4-seam fastballs would have been 2310 RPM. Even if you add in a few on the fringe – anything from 91 mph or above – the average stays above 2300.
Flaherty’s sliders are probably classified correctly. He threw 16 of them with an average velocity of 84.2 – just a hair up from expectations. His spin rate on those pitches was in line with expectations from previous seasons at 2400.
In his Cy Young contending 2019 season, Flaherty flipped that thing at 2381 RPM. In his aborted 2021 campaign, that had risen to 2401 on average.
Takeaways? Statcast is a bit misleading, but through one start, Flaherty looks like his velocity and spin are, at worst, where they need to be. And the data leans more toward the optimistic side of things heading forward. That’s a reason to be encouraged.
Dylan Carlson – Max and Average Exit Velocity
Back in January, I wrote about the struggles that Dylan Carlson had with his wrist/thumb and how that affected his ability to drive the ball, and by extension, his overall season stats from ’22. Carlson spent much of the offseason rehabbing his wrist and building up strength and weight to increase his power potential and better weather the rigors of a full season in the St. Louis heat.
Carlson has already proven that he can be an average or better hitter. From age 21-23, Carlson produced a 103 wRC+ and 4.9 fWAR. Steamer and ZiPS, who don’t factor in his offseason weight training regimen into their predictions but do punish him for his injury last season, both believe Carlson will bounce back to a 113/111 wRC+ next season. That’s “solid starter” levels in a corner outfield and “very good player” levels in center, especially if his defense there remains average or better.
In other words, it’s not going to take much for Carlson to be a very valuable producer for the Cardinals next season and that’s exactly the kind of thing you would expect a healthy, age-24 player to do entering their third full season.
Still, we need to see evidence of it. It’s early spring. Are we seeing it so far?
On Monday, Carlson smashed his first homer of the spring. It came on a bad pitch – a center, center fastball at 95 mph. But the pitch doesn’t matter. It’s what he did with it. And how he did it.
The homer came while Carlson was batting from the left side, which has traditionally been his weaker side to this point in his career. It was a low liner – 23 degrees – but he smoked it at 108.4 mph for a no-doubt homer.
That’s a big exit velocity for anyone except Aaron Judge and Jordan Walker(!), but particularly so for Carlson. It would have been the 4th hardest hit of Carlson’s 2022 season from the left side of the plate. It would have been his hardest homer last season. And the lowest from a launch angle perspective. It’s notable, to me at least, that even early this spring Carlson was able to muscle a pitch over the wall at a relatively low angle, something he could not do last year.
If you go back to 2021 it doesn’t change how unusual this home run was for Carlson. His hardest hit ball in ’21 was a 109 mph one-hopper to the second baseman for an out. His hardest homer was a 107.4 mph shot at 24 degrees – similar to this one but slower and not as deep.
That’s the fine line that Carlson has walked. A few more miles per hour, even with his typical line drive approach, will mean a few more homers, a few more doubles, a few more points of slugging, a few more points of wRC+, and a few more points of fWAR.
That’s how an expected 110-115 wRC+ becomes a 120-125 wRC+.
Overall this spring Carlson has shown a notable improvement in his avg. exit velocities. He is at 93.8 mph heading into Tuesday’s action. Last season, with his power-sapping injuries, his average EV was 86.1. It was 88.2 in ’22.
(And as I edit this on Tuesday afternoon, he has hit another one. Also from the left side at 96.8 mph.)
Maybe that one (two!) homer will prove to be a meaningless spring blast that doesn’t translate into anything different during the season. But so far what Carlson tried to do this offseason is paying off. That’s a reason to be encouraged.
Steven Matz – What Was Once Still Is
Matz had a deceptively good season last in ’22 when he was on the mound. He only threw 48 innings in 10 starts, but his K rate was up from a career average (’15-’21) of 22.3% to 26.1%. His BB rate fell from 7.1% to 4.8% over the same period. He struggled with homers and strand rate, and that led to his ERA ballooning while his FIP and xFIP fell.
’22 ERA: 5.25
’22 FIP: 3.78
’22 xFIP: 3.15
If Matz had maintained those improved BB and K rates for 150 innings, his ERA would probably look a lot more like that FIP or xFIP, and fans would feel a lot better about the contract that the Cardinals signed him to.
What made Matz more effective last season (despite the ERA)? It was a limited sample size, but Matz did show improvement in the spin on his sinking fastball – up to 2260 on average from 2184 in 2102 in his more complete ’21 and ’19 seasons. His changeup spin rose from 2322 on average from 2260 in ’21 and 2301 in ’19.
Those aren’t massive changes. But he was able to translate them into more whiffs last season, particularly on his fastball, and better overall command of his entire repertoire without losing quality in terms of spin/break.
On Monday, his first public outing of the spring, Matz’s velocity and spin rates were pretty much right on track from last year. Both were down a smidge – 48 and 23 RPM’s respectively – but that’s well within the margin of difference we would see within a single game. Considering the date, they are also more likely to track upward a bit as he loosens up and prepares for regular-season action.
The results are probably even more encouraging than the Statcast data. Matz continued to display excellent command and control and the ability to generate whiffs and CSW’s (called strikes + swinging whiffs). He gave up no hits and no walks in his three innings while striking out four batters in his three innings of work.
The same spring caveats apply. It’s early. It’s one game. Still, it’s exciting to see a pitcher who should have been really good if it weren’t for injuries last season pick up right where he left off, with the results as well. That’s a reason to be encouraged.
One spring game. Three encouraging signs. And that doesn’t even include what the club is seeing from Jordan Walker, Masyn Winn, and others. It’s still early spring. But it’s been a good spring for the Cardinals so far. Let’s hope that continues.