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St. Louis Cardinals: Too Soon to Judge Jack Flaherty

Jack Flaherty will be a good MLB pitcher soon enough

Perhaps it was because of the enormous success being had in Memphis this season, or maybe due to the exciting abilities of players such as Magneuris Sierra that we saw in Spring Training; but it has seemed that the Cardinals fanbase, as a whole, showed more interest in the minor league system in 2017 than in any year I can remember. Maybe some of my colleagues here at the Redbird Daily deserve some credit for that, as they did an incredible job with minor league coverage this season. Another part of it is the way the major league team relied on the minor league depth, exposing fans to so many new faces as the year went on. Lastly, it may be because there is some legitimate talent in the system that baseball fans just can’t help but get excited about.

To that accord, I was very excited to see Jack Flaherty cap his fantastic 2017 season with a September in St. Louis. I know many fans shared that sentiment. And I know many fans are likely disappointed with what they have seen over the first 4 starts of Flaherty’s young career. But it would behoove us to all take a step back and realize…

It’s too soon to judge Jack Flaherty.

Bad News First

Okay, so Flaherty’s first four starts were less than ideal. When he joined the rotation in the wake of the Mike Leake trade, the assumption was that he could easily outperform the veteran. This wasn’t exactly a ridiculous request, Mike Leake averaged less than 5 innings per start and had a 6.94 ERA from July 5th to August 26th. Unfortunately, Flaherty has posted a 6.46 ERA and averaged less than 4 innings per start. So I guess we’ll call it a wash. However, the team has managed to win 3 out of his 4 starts, so I guess the team just plays harder for him (insert eyeroll here).

What Are The Issues?

Bases on Balls

Flaherty’s biggest issues in his short time with the big club are things that are out of character for him. He is known as a pitcher that doesn’t walk many people. Although 2017 has been his true “breakout” year, a low walk rate has been a constant throughout the minors. Over the past three seasons (age 19, 20, and 21) his BB/9 have been 2.9, 3.0, and 2.1 in the minor leagues, respectively.

How good are those numbers? Well, comparing him to the best, I looked at Clayton Kershaw‘s minor league numbers. Kershaw was drafted out of high school, just like Flaherty, so comparing them based on age is a good measure. At age 19 Kershaw posted a 4.9 BB/9 and followed it up with a 2.8 at age 20. That actually compare’s favorably to Jack. His walk rate has been good.

However, it hasn’t been great in the majors, to the tune of a 4.7 per 9 rate. Flaherty is known as a guy with good control (throws strikes) and developing command (pinpoint location), so to see him suddenly struggle to find the zone is unexpected. I suspect that it is simply a case of a young pitcher being slightly overwhelmed in his first taste of the big leagues.

Hitters Don’t Miss Mistakes

Struggling with walks typically leads pitchers to groove more pitches in the zone as they get frustrated. Flaherty has “grooved” about 6% of his pitches in the big leagues. By comparison, Lance Lynn (while establishing a career high in HR’s allowed) has grooved about 4%. This would lead to the H/9 that he has seen jump from 7.3 in the minors to 10.6 in the majors. Missing within the zone, or grooving pitches just to get them over, is going to get you hit hard at this level. Now, we have to consider that all these big league numbers have happened in a very small sample. That’s why reading too deep into them now is poor form.

Keep in mind that Flaherty has thrown a combined 164 innings this season. That is 30 more than he threw last season. His arm has seen more work than ever before. He would not be the first pitcher to tire in September. Typically control/command are the first things to go when fatigue sets in. Combine that with the jump to a level of world class hitters and you can understand why there have been some struggles.

Now the Good News

Flaherty has had a successful 2017 season, regardless of what he does in the major leagues. At age 21 — keep that in mind, he is ONLY 21 — he climbed THREE levels in the system. This after never throwing a pitch above Single-A. He absolutely dominated the minor leagues and reclaimed his prospect stock. Prior to the year he had fallen out of most publications “Top 10” rankings for the organization. Now he sits as no worse than the #3 pitcher behind Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver (and I hardly consider him a prospect anymore, Weaver has arrived).

An encouraging sign is that his K/9 has maintained. This number was 8.9 in the minors this year (and has been between 8.5-9.2 in his full minor league seasons) and sits at 8.8 in the majors. This means that his stuff plays at this level, and most of his troubles can be traced back to his control/command issues.

Not unexpectedly, at age 21 the former 34th overall pick has grown into his ideal pitching frame. The strength gains have shown in a fastball that has added 3-4 mph since he joined the system. He is efficient at his best, throwing an average of 15.8 pitches per inning in the minors this year. For perspective, that rate has him pitching into the 7th inning before he reaches 100 pitches. Add that to a strong build with easy mechanics and you have the making of an innings eater.

Heck, maybe that’s why the Cardinals are (potentially) going to let Lance Lynn walk and essentially replace him with Flaherty. They can fill a similar role in the major league rotation.

Consider a few more things:

A) He’s only 21, the fact that he is in the majors is a success.
B) Adam Wainwright was in AA at age 21 and (save for 2 September games in 2005) wouldn’t pitch significant major league innings until the age of 24.
C) Back to Kershaw, when he debuted in the majors (22 games, 107 IP in 2008) he posted pedestrian numbers. His line held a 4.26 ERA, 1.495 WHIP, 4.3 BB/9 and a very comparable 8.4 K/9. He would become elite the next season. I’m not saying Flaherty will become Kershaw, I’m just saying that even the very best struggled at first.
D) Closer to home, Luke Weaver was guilty of “nibbling” around the strike zone when he debuted in 2016. He learned from it and has turned the corner in 2017. Jack could do the same.

Give Him a Year

We will know so much more about Flaherty at this time next year. As a pitcher known for being mature beyond his years, I fully believe he will adjust and come back sharper and more composed than what we have seen this September. The future of pitching is bright for the Cardinals and Flaherty is going to shine with time. First impressions are huge, but sometimes in life you have to disregard them. This is especially true in baseball. I mean, Mike Trout slashed .220/.289/.390 in his first 135 PA’s. So withhold your judgement on Flaherty, it’s early.

Thanks for reading!

Rusty Groppel
I'm a diehard Cardinals fan that feels privileged to write about his favorite team in this corner of cyberspace. I'm also the bass player for the best damn band in the 618, Tanglefoot. Check us out some time.
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