Is Jack Flaherty a Cy Young Award Candidate? The Great Peter Gammons Says Yes

Is Jack Flaherty a stealth candidate for the Cy Young award?

If you respect the great Peter Gammons — and who doesn’t? — then read on …

In his new piece for The Athletic (a subscription site) Gammons wrote this about Flaherty, the Cardinals’ second-year starting pitcher who finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting last season:

“Predicting postseason awards is one of the fun games in spring training, and unless one immediately starts with Max Scherzer, most of said predictions have all the certainty of the Quinnipiac poll on the favorite to win the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. But this happened in a five-day run from one Arizona ballpark to another:”

Gammons then presented comments he’d picked up from baseball people on the Arizona spring-training circuit:

♦  From a National League GM: “If I bet, which I do not, I’d go to Vegas and put money down on Jack Flaherty to win the Cy Young.”

♦ From an NL assistant GM: “Flaherty has the best stuff in the National League.”

♦ From an NL manager: “Flaherty is Zack Greinke with filthy stuff. What did he have, a 30 percent strikeout rate in his first full season? That’ll get better, a lot better.”

Gammons continued …

“Weeks ago, I had Cardinal veterans voicing the same opinion, and watching him. I get Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Aaron Nola, Jacob deGrom, Walker Buehler (but) I’m all in on Flaherty, his stuff, his athleticism, his focus, discipline.”

When Gammons visited the Cardinals’ camp earlier this month, he shared his Flaherty-as-Cy-Young-candidate theory with veteran starter Adam Wainwright. No surprise, but Waino agreed. “And,” Wainwright told Gammons, “he is driven. He’s different, in every great way.”

It’s fun to think about.

Flaherty turned in an impressive performance in 2018, finishing second to the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler with 2.6 bWAR. (The Baseball Reference version of Wins Above Replacement.) Flaherty led NL rookies in strikeouts (182) and strikeout rate (29.6%). He was second in opponent OPS allowed (.635), batting average against (.199), and average Game Score (57.4.) And Flaherty’s 3.34 ERA was third among NL rookie starters. The Flaherty innings count (151) would have been higher — but he worked 31.2 innings at Triple A Memphis early last season.

During the NL expansion era, which began in 1962, Flaherty had the highest strikeout rate (29.6) by a rookie starter in Cardinals’ history (minimum 150 innings pitched), finished fifth in ERA (3.34) and sixth in bWAR (2.6.) As for bulk strikeouts, the only rookie Cardinals’ starting pitchers to notch more strikeouts in a season than Flaherty (182) were Rick Ankiel (194) and Dizzy Dean (191.)

In his 28 starts Flaherty, a right-hander, was effective against RH batters and LH batters. Though he was nastier when confronting RH hitters — with a 32.5% strikeout rate, and 3.18 xFIP — he was hardly easy for left-handed batters to crack. Flaherty struck out 27 percent of LHB faced, but a high walk rate (12.6%) was the source of an elevated 3.99 xFIP.

Flaherty can get better in two areas: reducing his walk rate and allowing fewer home runs. But he’s capable of getting that done, especially if his work-in-progress changeup becomes a brutal accomplice to his four-seam fastball and slider.

With a strong age-22 season on his resume, Flaherty seems grounded for an outstanding career. It’s interesting to note some of his “similarity score” historical comparables at the same age; the list includes Josh Beckett, Roy Halladay, Darryl Kile, Jack McDowell and Michael Pineda.

In MLB history, only four pitchers have put together a rookie-season combination of 150+ innings with a strikeout rate of at least 29.6 percent: Kerry Wood, Hideo Nomo, Dwight Gooden and our man Jack Flaherty.

Let’s look at this from a different angle and tweak the standards a bit …

In MLB history only six starting pitchers age 22 or younger have produced a rookie season that contains 150+ innings and a strikeout rate of at least 25%.

This six:

• Dwight Gooden, age 19, in 1984
• Rick Ankiel, age 20, in 2000
• Jose Fernandez, age 20, in 2013
• Kerry Wood, age 21, in 1998
• Jack Flaherty, age 22, in 2018
• Herb Score, age 22, in 1955

Among the six, Flaherty ranked fourth with his 3.34 ERA.

In 2018 Flaherty took his place in an exclusive group of very young rookie starting pitchers.

What’s next?

Obviously, pitchers are vulnerable to injuries and regression. Pineda, for example, hasn’t fulfilled his early-career potential. Pineda was a solid but average MLB starting pitcher before missing all of last season after having elbow surgery.

FanGraphs recently offered this preseason assessment of Flaherty’s 2019 season. Will he improve, or take a step back? Flaherty has been loco-good this spring, and that has Gammons (and many others) buzzing.

FanGraphs on Flaherty:

“Rookie pitchers carrying a near 30% strikeout rate in their first 150 frames often (forecast) years of success, especially when paired with a 1.11 WHIP and sub 3.50 ERA. His strikeouts are sure to keep flowing fueled by a filthy slider that returned an elite 23% swinging-strike rate, while a shift away from his poor sinker to more four-seamers helped Flaherty earn more strikes and set up the fantastic breaker.

“But there are reasons for concerns, with a possible comp of Lance McCullers Jr. indicating a possible sophomore slump. Flaherty flirted with a 10% walk rate, preventing him from going deep into games as he averaged well under six frames per start.

“Meanwhile, there’s more development necessary in his repertoire as his curveball still needs refinement to turn into a strong third option when his two-pitch mix isn’t enough.

“The combination of control, longevity, and arsenal depth make me hesitant to believe in a repeat for 2019, though the opportunity is there for Flaherty to blossom into a force in the National League. 

“The quick opinion: There is more risk than his dominant rookie year suggests, though just slightly above-average performances from his four-seamer and curveball will be enough to let his elite slider shine.”

Gammons’ crystal ball doesn’t have to be right in 2019. Even if Flaherty performs about the same, or slightly worse, he’ll still be a formidable starting pitcher with a reasonable chance to grow and develop into a great one.

And maybe even a Cy Young award honoree.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie