By: Chris Larson
When you begin to brainstorm who the potential candidates are that could potentially win the National League Cy Young Award this season, you likely will start with the obvious names on the board that are candidates year in and year out because of their greatness. Those individuals include: Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals, Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets. This year, you might even throw Clayton Kershaw's teammate, Hyun-Jin Ryu, into the mix because of the numbers that he has put up.
Despite that, there are other dark horse candidates out there making their own case for the award and one of those is St. Louis Cardinals right-hander, Jack Flaherty. One of the biggest reasons why the St. Louis Cardinals have been a more formidable team during the second half of this season and found a way to play on a more consistent level is because of the performance of Jack Flaherty. In fact, he has emerged as the ace of that starting rotation with the numbers that he continues to put up and looks like someone the Cardinals can rely on moving forward to anchor down the top of their rotation.
On the year, the 23-year old right hander, has put up a 3.14 ERA over 160.1 innings of work with (186) strikeouts, an ERA+ of (136), and a FIP of (3.77). When you put all of that together, it equates to a strikeouts-per-9 rate of (10.4), a (1.04) WHIP, and RA9 (Runs Allowed Per 9 Innings) value of (3.26). Certainly worthy numbers for someone that has gotten little fanfare to this point and a true indication of the type of value that Jack Flaherty provides to the St. Louis Cardinals when he takes the mound.
However, things get even better when you break down Flaherty's season into two halves and start to look at how he has performed during the second half. So far during the second half of this season, Jack Flaherty has put up a 0.85 ERA over 63.1 innings of work with (79) strikeouts, a (0.75) WHIP, and has held opposing teams to a: .147/.218/.225 slash line over that span. During Jack Flaherty's last outing alone against the San Francisco Giants last Tuesday (09/03), he threw 8 scoreless innings holding the Giants to (1) hit and (1) walk, while recording (8) strikeouts. Flaherty's next outing comes today (09/08) when he will toe the rubber against the division rival, Pittsburgh Pirates, at PNC Park in the three-game series finale and will look to preserve the series win for the Cardinals.
While it's easy to look at the numbers and understand the success that Jack Flaherty has had, it's important to take a broader look at the sample and look at various metrics that might prove what has worked so well for him this season and compare his overall stats to other qualified starting pitchers around the National League. After all, if you're going to make a case for someone to win an award, you have to be able to compare their stats to their counterparts and state exactly where they rank in various categories.
Among qualified National League starting pitchers, Jack Flaherty ranks twelfth in ERA, ninth in strikeouts-per-9 rate, and has done quite well stranding the opposing teams base runners on the base paths, as illustrated by his left on-base percentage of (81.7%), which ranks second in the National League behind only the aforementioned Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Furthermore, among qualified National League starters, Flaherty has the second best BABIP (.251) behind only Jeff Samardzija of the San Francisco Giants, is tied for the fifth highest strikeout-to-walk percentage at (21.4%) with Clayton Kershaw, and has the eighth highest SIERA (Skill Interactive Earned Run Average) in the National League at (3.84).
SIERA is an interesting stat because it strives to value a pitcher's overall performance, while taking out factors that the pitcher can't control themselves, out of the equation. For example, SIERA will look at Jack Flaherty's overall value and skill set, while discounting the factors of the ballpark that he might be pitching in on any given day or what affect the weather might have on his overall pitching performance. In addition, SIERA takes into account the number of balls that are put into play and puts a value for the type of ball that was put in play. The voters for the National League Cy Young Award might not necessarily put a lot of stock into evaluating a starting pitcher's SIERA, but as analytics continue to become more and more prevalent and alter the state of the game of baseball, it could be something that starts to come into the picture over the next couple of years.
Beyond those metrics compared to other counterparts around the National League, it's also vital to take a look at Jack Flaherty's overall batted ball stats and how they compare to the rest of the National League landscape. Over the course of this season, Jack Flaherty has proven that he is not a groundball pitcher, as illustrated by his groundball percentage of (37.1%), which ranks third behind a pair of San Francisco Giants in Madison Bumgarner and the aforementioned Jeff Samardzija. Furthermore, when it comes to runs scored per 9 innings, Jack Flaherty ranks sixth with a (4.15) value.
Now, when it comes to how Jack Flaherty throws the ball and type of contact that he induces, things get interesting. Flaherty leads the National League in soft contact rate with a (23.5%) value. On the other end of the spectrum, when it comes to hard contact rate, Jack Flaherty ranks twelfth among qualified National League starting pitchers, with a (38.8%) rating. As such, this season Jack Flaherty has proven to give up more balls to the opposite field compared to allowing the opposing teams hitters to pull the ball. When it comes to opposite field contact, Flaherty ranks twelfth (26.7%), while he comes in twentieth in pull percentage at (39.3%), among qualified National League starters.
So now that we have taken a look at Jack Flaherty's overall season statistics on an individual and National League basis, it's important to switch back to looking at just Flaherty and what has been working for him to contribute to this level of success this season. For this part of the discussion, we will take a look at Jack Flaherty's work so far this season and compare it to his overall body of work for last season to try to gauge a proper argument.
For starters, take a look at Jack Flaherty's overall batted ball stats this year compared to last season in the chart below, courtesy of data from FanGraphs. Of course, it's important to remember that last season's stats in the first line, show the entire body of work for the season, while this year's show his up-to-date stats, but with approximately three weeks remaining in the regular season, these values are fairly close to what the final numbers should look like when all is said and done.
As you can see in the chart above, Jack Flaherty has lowed his overall groundball-to-fastball ratio this season compared to last year, but he's become more of a flyball starting pitcher this season compared to last. As the chart indicates, Flaherty put up a groundball percentage last season of (42.1%) compared to (37.1%) this year, while his flyball percentage sat at (36.8%) last year and has risen approximately three percentage points to (39.8%) this season. In addition, Jack Flaherty has seemingly induced more contact to the opposite filed and dropped his overall pull percentage. Last year, his pull percentage came in at (43.5%) and so far this season it sits at (39.3%), while his opposite field numbers are almost four percentage points higher this year at (26.7%) compared to (22.9%) last season. In terms of centerfield percentage, Flaherty has virtually the same amount of batted balls to centerfield this season compared to last with a (0.5%) increase.
Now, to carry the discussion forward, let's analyze the type of pitches that Jack Flaherty is throwing this year compared to last season and the average velocity on each of those pitches. For that, once again take a look at the chart below, created with data from FanGraphs.
Essentially, the differences between this year and last year are very minimal overall and there's no stark changes in Jack Flaherty's overall pitch repertoire. Among the most obvious differences, would be the amount of time that Flaherty is relying on his fastball this year compared to last season. So far this season, that value sits (58.3%) compared to (55.6%) last season. In addition, Flaherty has relied on his slider somewhat less (29.9% last season compared to 27.5% this year) and has only slight changes in the amount of time that he's thrown his curveball and changeup between 2018 and 2019. Beyond that, all of the average velocities on each pitch look fairly the same with slight increases this season compared to last which could be based on a number of different factors including Jack Flaherty being a year older and the overall makeup of the baseball this season compared to what it was like for last year.
To conclude this discussion, let's analyze how Jack Flaherty has done in terms of the plate and working inside/outside of the strike zone. For info on that, take a look at the chart below, once again with data compiled from FanGraphs.
The biggest takeaway from the data above is the fact that when Jack Flaherty has gotten into trouble this season, it's been because of the amount of contact that the opposing team's hitters are making outside of the strike zone. As you can see, that value sat at (52.0%) last year, but is at (57.1%) this season so far. As a result of that, his overall contact in the strike zone has dipped a little bit (82.8% last season compared to 80.5% this year), but he has also induced a bit more contact within the strike zone as well which would help to support the fact of why Jack Flaherty has recorded more strikeouts overall in 2019 compared to in 2018. In case you don't recall, Flaherty has recorded (186) strikeouts so far this year with three weeks to go compared to (182) strikeouts over (28) games in 2018.
Although St. Louis Cardinals right-hander, Jack Flaherty, might not be the most obvious candidate to win the National League Cy Young Award this season, he definitely belongs on the list of dark horse candidates based on everything presented in this article and his overall stats for this season. A big reason why the St. Louis Cardinals have went from having a disappointing season to leading the National League Central, with a (3 and 1/2) game lead over the Chicago Cubs at the start of play today, is in large part because of the contributions that Jack Flaherty has brought to the table especially over the second half of this season. As a result of that, the St. Louis Cardinals might have just found their next ace and the guy that can anchor down the top of their starting rotation for the foreseeable future.