Here’s my latest report on pitchers for the 2022 Cardinals. I’ve completed the reviews of the position players, and began the pitcher assessments by opening with Adam Wainwright earlier this week …
NEXT UP: Jack Flaherty, who may well be the most important starter in the St. Louis rotation in 2023. If he can stay healthy and click “2019” on his calendar for a return to the past, the Cardinals can have a No. 1 starter. If Flaherty is set back by more injuries and can’t find his near-peak form, the disappointment will continue for a fourth consecutive season.
IMPRESSIVE EARLY TRAJECTORY, RUINED BY INJURIES: There’s a distinct breaking point in Jack’s MLB pitching career, with two years of health, success and acclaim followed by three seasons of injuries, inconsistency and decline. He went from a rising young star to a descending star but is still young enough (27 years) to turn his career around. It isn’t that Flaherty forgot how to pitch or squandered his immense talent. He had horrendous luck with a sequence of injuries that derailed his career.
— After performing 16 percent above the league average (ERA+) in 2018, Flaherty emerged as one of the top starters in baseball in 2019 at age 23. He worked 196 innings over 33 starts and had the sixth-best ERA in the majors at 2.75. Over his final 16 starts in 2019, Flaherty dominated with a 0.93 ERA and 33.3 percent strikeout average while allowing opponents to bat .139 with a .419 OPS. Flaherty’s 152 ERA+ put him 52 percent above the MLB average – ranking 9th overall – and he finished fourth in the National League Cy Young voting.
— Over the 2018 and 2019 seasons Flaherty made 62 starts, pitched 347 innings, was strong with a 3.01 ERA, and performed 35 percent above league average per ERA+. And he did not spend a single day on the Injured List.
— From 2020 through 2022, Flaherty made only 32 starts, worked 155 innings, pitched to a 3.90 ERA and 4.36 fielding-independent ERA, and performed 2 percent above league average per ERA+. And over the past two seasons Flaherty has missed 249 days during the season because of a strained oblique (74 days), and two separate instances of right-shoulder trouble ( 175 days.)
— In fairness to Flaherty, he pitched well when healthy in 2021, coming through with a 2.90 ERA in his first 11 starts before suffering the oblique strain on May 31 of that season. But he wasn’t the same after coming off the IL, developing a sore shoulder to go back on the IL. In his final five appearances of the ‘21 season (three starts) Flaherty was shredded for a 6.97 ERA. But his bottom line was positive: a 122 ERA+ for the season that placed him 22 percent above the league average.
— Since that fourth-place showing in the 2019 Cy Young voting Flaherty ranks 143rd among MLB pitchers in games started and is 160th in innings pitched.
A SEASON OF TORMENT IN 2022: Flaherty had shoulder discomfort during the offseason leading into 2022 but wasn’t allowed to consult with the Cardinals medical team because of MLB’s lockout of the players that officially opened a 99-day labor dispute.
Flaherty wasn’t ready to pitch after reporting to spring training, and the Cardinals shut him down for rest and rehab. Flaherty convinced manager Oli Marmol to put him in the Cards rotation ahead of the scheduled plan, and Flaherty made his season debut on June 15. The decision to speed up his rehab assignment and rush Flaherty back to the mound was a huge mistake by Marmol. Flaherty clearly wasn’t ready, and his comeback was aborted after three starts that covered only eight innings. In the three starts Flaherty had a 5.63 ERA, a weak 14.2 percent strikeout rate and a horrendous 14.5% walk rate. Opponents battered him for a .866 OPS.
Flaherty headed back to the IL and didn’t reappear in the majors again until Sept 5. He showed improvement in his six appearances (five starts) by posting a 3.86 ERA, and improving his strikeout rate to 21.6%, and lowering his walk rate by four percent. Flaherty also showed modest improvement in his swinging strike percentage. That said, his walk rate was still too high (10.4%), his strikeout rate was still too low, and opponents had a .784 OPS against him.
Here are a list of problematic symptoms displayed by Flaherty in his truncated 2022:
— His four-seam fastball velocity dropped to a career-low 93 mph and had a negative value in quality. Opponents batted .319 with a .594 slug and low whiff rate against the four-seam. In 2019, hitters managed a .194 average and .343 slug when putting Flaherty’s four-seam in play. Flaherty’s slider, curve, cutter and changeup were OK last season. Not good, but OK. That was an issue because of his reliance on the four-seam fastball.
— Jack’s swinging-strike rate (10.4%) was the lowest of his career. The contact rate against him (76%) was the highest allowed in his career.
— Flaherty had erratic control as evidenced by his career lows in overall strike percentage (39%) and first-pitch strike rate (54.5%.) Hitters chased only 22% of his non-strikes, the worst rate of his career.
— In his 36 innings last season Flaherty had a 4.25 ERA and a 4.97 FIP. He had a poor strikeout rate (19.8%), a terrible walk rate (13.3%) and a bad 1.61 WHIP. For the first time in his career Flaherty had a negative value in Win Probability Added (minus 0.33). For perspective his WPA in 2019 was a plus 4.5.
GRADE: I hesitated before making the call, simply because of his injuries. But Flaherty played a role in the demise by pushing his way back into the Cardinal rotation too soon, thus setting up his own failure. I’ll go with a D minus here. But if any of you believe it should be an “F,” I wouldn’t challenge you on it.
CONCLUSION: Flaherty has a lot to prove in 2023. In 2019, Bill James ranked him at No. 9 overall in his best starting pitcher list behind Justin Verlander, Gerritt Cole, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, Patrick Corbin and Clayton Kershaw. At the end of the 2022 season Bill James ranked Flaherty at No. 183 on his best–starter ratings — behind Erick Fredde and ahead of Josh Winder.
THE BIG QUESTION GOING FORWARD: Can Flaherty have his first normal, uninterrupted season since 2019? That’s what matters the most. If he can do it his pitching should rise in quality. It’s a crucial year for the Cardinals and their would-be ace. The Cardinals desperately need Flaherty to pitch like a No. 1 starter, and he needs to have a kick-ass season to set himself up for a rich free-agent contract after the 2023 campaign.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.