Recent St. Louis Cardinals pitchers have started fast and gotten hurt, which is more common than you might think. How can they avoid these injuries?
An NL assistant general manager told Peter Gammons this Spring that St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty “has the best stuff in the National League.” The legendary baseball writer seemed to agree, telling Bernie Miklasz, “I’m all in on Flaherty, his stuff, his athleticism, his focus, discipline.”
How about his health?
Despite a slow start this season, Flaherty appears to have a marvelous future. But so did the early versions of Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes. Then the arm troubles started.
In case you’ve forgotten, Garcia, 23, was 13-10 with a 2.70 ERA in 2010; Wacha, 21, was MVP of the National League Championship Series in 2013; Martinez, 23, went 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA and made the NL All-Star team in 2015, his first year as a full-time starter. Reyes, 21, was 4-1 with a 1.57 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 46 innings in 2016.
Can Flaherty sidestep the injury curse and be a longtime Cardinals stalwart? It won’t be easy. “More than 50 percent of pitchers end up on the disabled list every season, on average for two months-plus,” Jeff Passan wrote in 2016’s The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports. He added, “The current generation of pitchers is lost, the product of a broken system, their arms ticking time bombs.”
While nothing guarantees long-term arm health, Flaherty appears to have a sound throwing motion. He “repeats his mechanics well and has a relatively low-effort delivery,” John Sickels of minorleagueball.com wrote in September of 2017.
Flaherty’s four-seam fastball, which has averaged 94.2 mph this year (according to MLB.com), is another predictor of sustained arm health. “Of all the MLB pitchers who threw 95 mph or harder on average in 2017, 80 percent of them appeared on the disabled list (now called the injured list) at some point during the season,” Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon, wrote in the Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.) in September of last year. “Only 29.6 percent of pitchers who averaged between 93 mph and 95 mph landed on the DL.”
The reality is you can’t rely on any young pitcher to stay healthy — and stay with the same team — year after year. Right now, there are 21 starting pitchers age 30 or older in the National League, and just six of those are on the team they broke in with. That includes Adam Wainwright, 37, a one-time Braves farmhand who has spent all 14 of his big league seasons with St. Louis.
It’s tempting to say that one-team Wainwright careers are on the wane, but they’ve never been the norm.
Twenty years ago, there were just two Major League starters with ten or more years on the team they played for: Dave Stieb (Blue Jays) and Jack Morris (Tigers). Today, there are seven such pitchers: Wainwright, Stephen Strasburg (Nationals), Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers), Madison Bumgarner (Dodgers), CC Sabathia (Yankees), Carlos Carrasco (Indians) and Felix Hernandez (Mariners).
Outside of Wainwright, what other recent pitchers broke in with the Cardinals and remained healthy and productive up to age 30? Lance Lynn was decent (11-8, 3.43 ERA, 1.229 WHIP) at 30 but has struggled with three AL teams in the last year and change. In 2005, a 30-year-old Matt Morris went 14-10 with a 4.11 ERA in his last Cardinals season before flailing (20-30, 5.19 ERA) with the Giants and Pirates his last three years.
So with Flaherty, we should temper our expectations. He averaged 10.8 Ks per nine innings a year ago and is at 10.2 this year, stats that augur success. He appears to be uncommonly mature for a 23-year-old. Many have praised his grit on the mound.
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So let’s enjoy Flaherty’s talent now, hope he gets untracked, and hope his arm holds up. With pitchers, no matter how gifted, the future is far from certain.