Jack Flaherty And The Soaring Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals, who have won 17 of their last 22 games, have ascended to the top of the NL Central Division alongside the Cubs. It’s truly amazing that they are where they are today, especially when you consider the fact that on July 3rd, just over a month ago, the Cardinals were sitting at .500. Now, they sit eight games over that mark, which is good for the third best record in the National League (trailing only the Dodgers and Braves). The St. Louis Cardinals are the only NL team to have won as many games as the Giants have (17) dating back to July 3rd.

Paul Goldschmidt and Kolten Wong are two big reasons why the Cardinals are surging. In the last 30 days, Goldy is hitting .292/.340/.708 with 11 home runs and 27 RBIs over the course of 98 plate appearances. Wong is batting over .400 during that time. However, one player who is not receiving the recognition he is worthy of is starting pitcher Jack Flaherty.

Since the calendar has turned to July, Flaherty has upped his game dramatically. In five starts (totaling 31.1 innings), Flaherty has pitched to the tune of a sterling 1.15 ERA, 2.52 FIP, and 3.50 xFIP. He’s been the most valuable Cardinals player in that time based on fWAR (1.1). His strikeout rate (11.20 K/9) and walk rate (2.59 BB/9) are improvements upon his season-long metrics (10.38 K/9; 2.97 BB/9). Home runs, which had been plaguing Flaherty all year (1.56 HR/9), are being kept at a minimum (0.57 HR/9 from July on).

Pitch values per 100 pitches

Source: FanGraphs
3/29 – 6/257/2 – 8/1
Fastball0.682.46
Sinker1.480.21
Slider-0.272.69
Curveball-1.56-0.53

All of his pitches, with the exception of the sinker, have coaxed better results in the last month or so, especially his (fourseam fastball and slider), which are Flaherty’s two primary pitches.

Graph: Baseball Savant

The raise in effectiveness of these two offerings actually has little to do with the movement on these pitches, as can be conveyed by the below graphs (courtesy of Brooks Baseball)…

He’s been generating slightly more vertical movement on the slider (an additional increase of 1.35 inches of vertical drop from June to July), but nothing out of the ordinary for Flaherty’s standards.

Rather, Flaherty has found the command for his slider again.

Heatmaps: FanGraphs

He’s locating his slider much lower down in the strike zone, which makes it much tougher for right-handed hitters to pull the ball (and hit the ball out of the park). His command of the pitch seems to be there on a more consistent basis (a more concentrated red zone).

To left-handed hitters, Flaherty has been locating his slide piece beneath the strike zone on a more regular basis, which makes it much tougher for them to square the pitch up.

The whiff rate (swings and misses) on Flaherty’s slider has improved from 45 percent through June to 52 percent in July alone, according to Statcast. On Thursday, the pitch had eight misses on 21 swings (38 percent).

Anne Rogers of MLB.com

Some writers and reporters have attributed Flahery’s hot streak to enhanced fastball command as well. I would have disagree with this statement. In fact, I would argue that his command of the fourseamer has actually stayed the same (or regressed for that matter).

The one counterargument one could make is that he’s been less predictable with the location of his fastball.

I think that the fastball has become more effective due to the bolstered command of his slider. The vertical separation between the two is greater than what it was in the past.

Another aspect of his game in which Flaherty has made progress is consistency in terms of where he is releasing the ball, his fourseam fastball in particular. This makes it more difficult for the hitter to potentially decipher what pitch may be on its way.

The Cardinals, Cubs, and Brewers are separated by a mere three game margin. If Jack Flaherty can maintain his slider command and continue to excel, the Cardinals’ chances of proving triumphant in the NL Central Divisional race are much higher.

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