Jack Flaherty’s first full time in the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation last year was a pretty good debut. In 151 innings, he picked up 182 punchouts with a 29.9% strikeout rate. He also had a 13.4 SwStk%, with a 3.34 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. That low of a WHIP with a 9.6 BB% just goes to show you how well Flaherty was at limiting hits. The main driver to his success was his slider, which had an 8.4 pVAL and an 84 wRC+. He also had a pretty wicked knuckle curve, that had a 16.7 SwStk% and 27 wRC+. So far this season, Flaherty’s statistics are not horrible, but fantasy owners might have been expecting more from the ace of the Cardinals. So what gives? Well, the biggest bug-a-boo seems to be his curve and slider. Let’s dig in more on those particular pitches.
The Trouble With the Curve
Flaherty’s curveball was one of his best pitches last year. Batters had a .178 avg with a 49 Whiff% and 50 K%. This year, batters have a .316 avg. The Whiff% and K% have also regressed to 27.5% and 20%, respectively. So what gives? Why is this curve pretty bad all of a sudden? Well, there are two things that seem to be driving the downturn in the pitch: usage and placement. Take a look at this year’s pitch map (first image) and compare it to this year’s (second image).
Last year, Flaherty was using the curve has his putaway pitch 30.8% of the time and batters were hitting .129 when down two strikes. He is getting about 1.2 inches of drop, which is less than the 2 inches of drop last year. He is throwing it less overall and especially using it less as a putaway pitch. This year, the putaway% is down from 30.8% to 12.5% and batters are hitting .333 with an exit velocity of 94.4 mph. Keep in mind the league average exit velocity on a knuckle curve is 88.8 mph. To me, it would seem Flaherty does not feel as confident in using it to get batters out. Flaherty is also is getting less drop on the knuckle curve.
Another thing that is hurting Flaherty’s overall numbers is his performance against left-handed batters. Lefties have absolutely feasted on his curve. Last year, they were hitting .133 with a whiff rate of 48.7% and K rate of 53.1%. This year, they are hitting .429 with a whiff rate down to 30.3% and K rate of 13.3%
As you can see, Flaherty was able to get the curve to be away from those left-handed batters. This year, however, the pitch has been coming more down the middle and into the left-handed bats.
The knuckle curve isn’t fooling them either. Flaherty is throwing the pitch 36.8% of the time in the zone, which is up from 33% last year. But it is generating a bunch of contact, evident in the batting average and also the drop in swing and miss. Lefties are swinging and missing on the curve only 16.7% of the time, which is down from 30.3% just last year.
BABIP and the Slider
Flaherty’s slider must have really upset the BABIP gods last year, as the pitch currently at .371, which is up from .267 and .274 in the last two seasons. Adding insult to injury, the slider is generating ground balls 43.6% of the time, which is up from 35.6% last year. For some pitchers with an excellent defense behind him, this would be great news. But Flaherty pitches in St. Louis, and while Kolten Wong is excellent with the glove, Paul DeJong, Matt Carpenter, and Paul Goldschmidt are not known for theirs. To make matters worse, when batters get that slide piece into the air, it usually goes out of the park. The FB% is down from last year to 30.8%, but holds a career-high HR/FB% at 33.3%. Another luck factor going against Flaherty’s slider is outside the zone contact. Flaherty is throwing the slider inside the zone more, up from 39% to 42.3%, but interestingly enough the O-Contact% is up from 36.1% to 42%.
So, he is throwing it less outside the zone, but when he does, batters are hitting hit more often. One should think the luck factors should tip into his favor as the season goes on.
So What Is a Jack Flaherty Owner to Do?
Looking at everything that Flaherty is doing, owners should hold at this point. He seems to be getting unlucky. His 2-stk rate is 25.5%, which puts him around other pitchers like Luke Weaver (why can’t we have nice things?), Brandon Woodruff, and Charlie Morton. His CSW rate is at 31%, which puts him around German Marquez and Noah Syndergaard.
His 2-stk whiff rate is 3.3%, which puts him around pitcher like Cole Hamels and Aaron Nola. If it weren’t for two trips to Miller Park where he went a combined total of seven innings and gave up nine earned runs with three home runs, his overall numbers would look much better.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)