All things being equal, most poker players would rather have an ace than a jack when given the choice.
Having an ace in your hand makes you feel powerful and in command. But if I’m playing Texas Hold’em and I’m holding an eight and a ten in my hand – and the community is showing a three, a six, a nine, and a queen – an ace does me no good. I’d certainly be pulling for a jack on the river as opposed to an ace, to make my straight.
Despite the premium value of an ace, there are numerous situations in poker where a jack can turn out to have more value than an ace, given the circumstances of the hand obviously.
The calendar will soon flip to March which means fantasy baseball draft season is upon us. Pitchers and catchers have reported to major league camps and fantasy baseballers are combing through mock drafts and analyzing ADPs, looking for value any place they can find it.
There are plenty of aces to choose from this season, but there is a Jack that I would prefer amongst several of his ace peers.
A year ago at this time, St. Louis Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty was the SP #6 heading into 2020 fantasy drafts with an overall ADP #23.5 per NFBC.
His current ADP is SP #11, with an overall ADP #30.5, per NFBC. Those metrics actually dip a bit further to SP #12 and overall ADP # 36.5 per FantasyPros, suggesting he is going a full round later this season, in the late third/early fourth round of drafts thus far.
So what happened? Let’s refresh.
After rising through the ranks quickly as one of the top prospects in the Cardinals minor league system, Flaherty made a brief debut with the team at the end of the 2017 season (21.1 IP over five starts). The following year, the 2014 first-round pick made the Opening Day roster entering the 2018 season in place of the injured Adam Wainwright.
Flaherty made only two starts at the MLB level over the first six weeks of the season, being shuffled back-and-forth to the minors in Memphis twice during April and May before joining the team for good in mid-May. Flaherty and his wipeout slider showcased his dominance by notching a pair of 13-strikeout performances against the Phillies and Brewers in his rookie season in addition to another 10-strikeout gem against the Dodgers.
He finished the year with a sterling 3.34 ERA and 1.11 WHIP and finished fifth in NL Rookie of the Year voting, behind Ronald Acuña, Jr., Juan Soto, Walker Buehler, and Miami’s Brian Anderson. What a loaded class.
Looking to build off his impressive rookie campaign, Flaherty struggled in the first half of 2019, as he entered the All-Star break with an uneven 4-6 record accompanied by a less-than-stellar 4.64 ERA and 1.23. But after pitching seven innings of one-run ball on the short-end of a 1-0 loss against the Giants in his final start heading into the break, everything clicked into place from that point forward.
In the second half, the 6″4′, 225-lb right-hander put together one of the most dominant pitching stretches in baseball history, registering a 7-2 record over 15 second-half starts with a jaw-dropping 0.91 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, and 124 strikeouts across just 99.1 innings. Behind his lethal fastball-slider combination, he had truly emerged as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, despite finishing fourth in NL Cy Young voting behind Jacob deGrom, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Max Scherzer.
That game log is as impressive a 15-game stretch as you’ll ever see. Thirteen quality starts. Consistently pitching deep into games, limiting free passes, nine different scoreless outings, and plenty of punch-outs.
Flaherty’s second-half ERA ranked as the second-best mark in baseball history (minimum 70 IP, since 1933), trailing only Jake Arrieta’s sensational 0.75 ERA during his brilliant 2015 second-half with the Cubs which propelled him to his very own Cy Young Award. Per USA Today, Flaherty became the third-youngest pitcher in baseball history to compile at least 230 K’s with fewer than 55 walks and a sub-2.75 ERA.
Flaherty’s second-half performance was backed by a stellar Statcast profile (via Baseball Savant). He was marvellous.
There was a brief playoff narrative around that time that suggested that Flaherty struggled during the Cardinals playoff run that season (1-2 with a 4.24 ERA) which simply was not the case. If you take a detailed look at the three games he pitched in the postseason, you’ll see he absolutely fit the bill of an ace. In his two starts against Atlanta during the NLDS, he struck out 16 batters over 13 innings yielding just four runs across two starts.
Then in his lone start of the NLCS against the Nationals, Flaherty simply ran out of gas after having pitched 200+ innings for the first time in his life between the regular season and playoffs, as Washington swept the Cardinals.
NLDS (at ATL): 7.0 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, BB, 8 K (loss)
NLDS (at ATL): 6.0 IP, 4 H, ER, BB, 8 K (win)
NLCS (at WAS): 4.0 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 6 K (loss)
Entering the abbreviated 60-game season in July of 2020, Flaherty was poised to cement himself as a bona fide Cy Young contender. The California native got off to a solid start, taking the hill on Opening Day for St. Louis and defeating the Pirates (7 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 6 K) in a 5-4 victory.
Then everything went sideways. A massive COVID-19 outbreak within the Cardinals organization caused the team to have an extended period of postponements and team-wide isolation. The team didn’t play for two weeks while being locked down in quarantine.
Flaherty himself even tweeted a humorous visualization of his attempt to re-create a bullpen session and build up his arm strength with his mattress while confined within a hotel room during quarantine. There was absolutely nothing normal about this situation, which says a lot about the mixed results that followed thereafter.
Let’s not pull a Joe Kelly and miss pic.twitter.com/exgkqNlE4H
— Jack Flaherty (@Jack9Flaherty) August 2, 2020
Once the Cardinals finally returned to the field, the team took a “kid’s glove” approach with their prized young ace, not wanting him to be overworked or put at risk of injury due to the disruption in his normal pitching routine. The 25-year-old was limited to just 41 pitches (1.2 IP) in his return to the mound against the Cubs in late August. Flaherty would only pitch a combined 20.2 IP across his next five starts, as the Cardinals cautiously and judiciously ramped him back up slowly.
St. Louis was forced to play numerous seven-inning double-headers as well to make up for all the lost games early on in the season, which further exacerbated the issues regarding the workloads of their starting pitchers. The layoffs, the disruptions, the scheduling quirks, and the complete lack of a normal training regimen finally caught up to Flaherty when he was bombed for nine earned runs in a road start against the Brewers on September 15, skyrocketing his ERA from 3.08 to 5.52 in the process.
Like any great ace though, the lifelong Kobe Bryant fan responded to adversity, much like his childhood hero, and finished the season strong.
In his next start after the meltdown against the Brewers, Flaherty notched a season-high 11 Ks while yielding just two hits and one earned run across six innings in a win over the Pirates. The Pirates – I know – but still impressive. As many fantasy analysts have noted this offseason if you simply remove that one disastrous start for Flaherty against the Brew Crew, he would have finished the season with a rock-solid 3.13 ERA.
I’m willing to toss out that one poor start – and the 2020 season entirely – when it comes to evaluating Flaherty, not unlike mucking a bad hand in poker.
Flaherty then punctuated his turmoil-filled 2020 season on a high note, pitching admirably in a playoff loss to the mighty Padres offense (6 IP, 6 H, ER, BB, 8 K).
Despite all the roadblocks, interruptions to his normal training regimen, doubleheaders, limited workloads, pitching to a hotel mattress, and numerous other obstacles, Flaherty started the season strong, finished the season strong, and battled through the unprecedented roller-coaster of the truncated 60-game season with a bulldog’s mentality that should serve him well in the future.
I’m surely not the first person to draw this comparison, but one of the reasons I am so confident in Flaherty’s true emergence as one of the top pitchers in baseball is his uncanny resemblance to Nationals ace, future Hall-of-Famer, and fellow bulldog Max Scherzer.
It’s easy to envision something when you’ve seen it before. They have nearly identical builds physically (Scherzer – 6″3′, 215 lbs, Flaherty 6″4′, 225 lbs) as well as eerily similar windups (including bringing both hands behind their head at times) and natural deliveries to the mound which often leads to sustaining good health.
Flaherty’s silky-smooth, balanced mechanics even caught the eye of the terrific Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) this week as seen below. Yankees starter Jameson Taillon even jumped into the replies on Twitter, complimenting Flaherty’s lower body control and noting that he “rides the slide” very well.
This natural type of delivery is not only easily repeatable but often reduces injury-risk as well, as evidenced by Scherzer’s sustained consistency, pitching 185+ innings every season from 2010-2018, including a stretch of six consecutive 200+ inning seasons.
Jack Flaherty, Mechanics. pic.twitter.com/FtJDemFtdU
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) February 24, 2021
Both Flaherty and Scherzer sit at 94-95 mph with their fastball velocity, limit walks, and feature comparable pitch repertoires, relying heavily on their terrific fastball-slider combination while mixing in changeups, curveballs, and either a cutter or sinker.
Scherzer clearly pitches with more emotion, while the reserved Flaherty is more the Leonardo to Scherzer’s Raphael. Not to say that they are carbon copies by any stretch, as Scherzer’s dominant changeup certainly distinguishes him from Flaherty, who doesn’t possess quite the enormous strikeout upside as Mad Max. But there is no denying the similarities overall both in their physical stature, delivery, and their approach on the mound.
Below is a list of the pitchers currently being drafted ahead of Flaherty in 2021 fantasy drafts as of this writing. Quick reminder: these are the best pitchers in Major League Baseball. They are all brilliant on the mound, and I would be more than happy to have any of them on my fake baseball teams so keep any of my nitpicking framed in that overall context.
- Jacob deGrom (NYM) – No argument, he’s otherworldly.
- Gerrit Cole (NYY) – No argument again, absolute beast.
- Shane Bieber (CLE) – There is no denying what he did this past season. Unanimous Cy Young Award winner in the American League. No argument from me here as a top-three fantasy pitcher (although some will argue that he benefited from a favorably unbalanced schedule last season, pitching A LOT against the weak AL Central division).
- Yu Darvish (SD) – Traded to San Diego this offseason, the 34-year-old Darvish is coming off a terrific season, building off his remarkable second-half turnaround in 2019. Something clearly clicked in the second half of that season, with a noted mechanical adjustment, as he has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball since that time, limiting walks like never before (and possibly no longer tipping his pitches?). Pitching for a loaded San Diego team with a ballpark upgrade moving from Chicago to Southern California, Darvish is set up nicely to continue his recent stretch of dominance in 2021, although something still feels uneasy to me about trusting Darvish as a top-five pitcher given how poorly he pitched in 2018 and the first half of 2019.
- Trevor Bauer (LAD) – Much like Bieber, what he did in 2020 was unreal, and now he gets to pitch in a great pitcher’s park at Dodger Stadium on the best team in baseball. And with that unique contract he signed, he could become a free agent again next winter, repeating the “contract-year” narrative again this season.
- Walker Buehler (LAD) – Quite frankly, Dodgeritis scares me. Buehler has exceptional stuff and I think he is an elite talent. I’m just not sure when (or if) he’ll be given that true ace workload that fantasy owners want and need. No one is quite sure what 2021 will bring in terms of pitcher workloads, but I’d really like to get 175+ innings out of a starter that I drafted in the first few rounds, and Buehler seems likely to settle more into that 150-inning range.
- Lucas Giolito (CHW) – Flaherty’s former high school teammate, along with Atlanta’s Max Fried, at Harvard-Westlake in Southern California, Giolito’s emergence in 2019-2020 since posting a 6.13 ERA in 2018 has been nothing short of astonishing. Powered by his terrific changeup, I think he will shine again in 2021, but if we are splitting hairs, pitching in the American League (at least for now as the NL still doesn’t have a DH) and in that bandbox that is
U.S. Cellular FieldGuaranteed Rate Field, I’m not sure we will ever see a sub-3.00 ERA from Giolito which is what this tier demands.
- Aaron Nola (PHI) – Nola bounced back from a rather mediocre 2019 season (3.87 ERA, 1.27 WHIP) and pitched very well in 2020. The LSU product is another pitcher who unfortunately gets dinged a bit for pitching in a hitter’s ballpark. Consistency has also been an issue at times, but Nola is terrific, his curveball is one of the best pitches in baseball, and he piles up the strikeouts. He’s an absolute ace worthy of an early-round fantasy selection.
- Max Scherzer (WAS) – The three-time Cy Young Award winner is now 36 years old. I’m a huge fan and think he can put together another great season or two, but he struggled at times in 2020. There have also been early signs that his body is beginning to break down over the past couple of seasons (back, neck, hamstring issues), and he’s currently battling a minor ankle issue in camp. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see Scherzer finish in the top-three at his position this season, but I doubt anyone would be surprised to see him finish outside the top-15 either.
- Clayton Kershaw (LAD) – Kershaw finally got the postseason monkey off his back with a stellar playoff performance (4-1, 2.93 ERA) which culminated in a World Series title in 2020. While the 32-year-old remains the ace of the best team in baseball capable of pitching to terrific ratios, Dodgeritis will likely keep his regular season workload in check to some extent. Kershaw is clearly on the back nine of his career, which limits the sky-high upside we have become accustomed to with the future Hall-of-Famer over the past decade
- Luis Castillo (CIN) – Now 28 years old, it feels like he should be younger since he only debuted in 2017. We’ve been waiting for Castillo and his terrific fastball/changeup combination to rise up the ranks of the starting pitcher totem pole for the past couple of seasons, but pitching for a bad team (4-6 record in 12 starts despite a 3.21 ERA) in an unfriendly ballpark has kept his value more in the SP2 range than a true SP1.
Flaherty is then followed by Brandon Woodruff, Blake Snell, Zac Gallen, Tyler Glasnow, and Kenta Maeda, all of whom feel like slightly more volatile options than Flaherty with a wider net of expected outcomes in my opinion.
The purpose of this quick exercise was simply to highlight that after the consensus top tier which features deGrom, Cole, and Bieber, the margin of difference between the next dozen or so pitchers is razor thin. I’ve played fantasy baseball for a long time, and one thing I can promise you is that the end-of-season starting pitcher rankings never mirror pre-season ADP.
Flaherty proved in 2019 that he belongs in the same class as the guys at the top of this list. And even in a completely sideways, out-of-sorts 2020 season, Flaherty still clearly demonstrated the skills of an elite starter.
While his walk rate jumped up a bit in 2020, he improved his whiff rate (career-high 34.5%) and K/9 (career-high 10.93) while his GB% remained in line with previous seasons, providing more reassurance that Flaherty can easily reach greater heights in 2021. Chasing his out-of-this-world 2019 second-half numbers is a fool’s errand, but the Cardinals ace has proven time-and-again, especially in those playoff performances, that he is up to the task of being one of the best pitchers in baseball.
- A proven track record.
- Smooth mechanics.
- Limits base-runners.
- Piles up the strikeouts.
- Put-away slider.
- Stands to benefit from improved infield defense behind him with the acquisition of all-world defender Nolan Arenado.
- Pitching for a contender in a favorable stadium in the National League (sans the DH).
What’s not to like?
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt unsurprisingly confirmed this week that Flaherty will start Opening Day at Cincinnati. I’m all-in on Flaherty in 2021 and beyond. And to prove to you that I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is, here is a trade that I made in a modified 15-team CBS dynasty league last week:
Traded for: SP Jack Flaherty (STL) + RP Jose Leclerc (TEX)
Traded away: SP Sonny Gray (CIN) + OF Byron Buxton (MIN)
(And you should know that I am unofficially the Vice President of the Byron Buxton Fan Club, so that was not an easy deal for me to make.)
I personally have Flaherty ranked right back in that SP #6-7 range where he was entering last season, in the same tier with Scherzer (who I refuse to bet against) and just slightly ahead of Buehler (workload concerns), Giolito (ballpark concerns), Nola (consistency concerns), and Kershaw (workload/age concerns).
All these pitchers are great, and again, I’ll gladly draft any of them – just not ahead of Flaherty. I’m not holding 2020 against him, and after what he and his team went through, you shouldn’t either.
Not to say that Flaherty will best each and every of those guys this season, he likely won’t. But I’m simply making the case that I think he is a great bet to outperform his current ADP. Draft him confidently as an SP#1 in round three as the anchor of your rotation and you won’t regret it, much like the poker player who stays in the hand long enough to catch that jack he needs to make that straight on the river.
Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)