After battling injuries the last few seasons, the Cardinals and their fans are wondering which Jack Flaherty they'll get this year
On September 8th of 2019, Jack Flaherty took the bump and pitched a masterpiece that Cardinal Nation had come to expect from Flaherty that year. He struck out 10 Pirates batters across 8 innings, walking only one and allowing zero earned runs. That outing brought his season ERA below 3.00 and his performance in both August and September pushed the Cardinals to an NL Central Crown and Flaherty to a 4th place NL Cy Young finish.
The latter half of the 2019 season provided a glimpse into what Cardinal fans hoped Flaherty would be for years to come: a fierce competitor with elite swing-and-miss stuff who could be an undisputed ace in St. Louis. Advanced metrics proved what fans saw on the field; Flaherty ranked in the 93rd percentile for average exit velocity allowed and weighted on-base average allowed. Translation: in 2019, hitters' contact off Flaherty was not often resulting in a base hit and when it was, they were not making loud contact.
Since that 2019 season, Flaherty’s contribution to the Cardinals' pitching staff has been limited due to a handful of injuries and the uniqueness of the shortened 2020 season. Flaherty pitched only 40.1 innings in 2020 and turned in an ERA+ of 86 (14% below the league average).
A torrid start to the 2021 season resulted in a collective, but short-lived exhale amongst Cardinals fans. In an 8-game stretch from April 7th to May 19th Flaherty went 8-0, pitching about 6 ⅓ innings per game while striking out over 50 batters. It appeared that 2019 Jack Flaherty was back.
On May 31, 2021, Flaherty suffered a left oblique strain against the Los Angeles Dodgers and was placed on the 10-day IL. He would end up missing more than two months of action before returning for a brief period in August of that year.
Unfortunately, the 2022 season was also one to forget for Flaherty after right shoulder issues limited his availability and effectiveness for the majority of the year. The right-hander only appeared in 9 games and pitched just 36.0 innings.
The trajectory of Jack Flaherty’s career has been a ruthless dichotomy. When healthy, Flaherty has proven his ability to be a top-tier starter in this league. The flip side has been frequent trips to the disabled lists and returning to St. Louis with hopeful anticipation, to no avail.
The 2023 season represents the single largest test, and opportunity, in the career of Jack Flaherty. This season is the last year of arbitration for Flaherty, making him an unrestricted free agent in the 2023-2024 offseason.
Not only does Flaherty face individual pressure to perform in a contract year, but he also faces external pressure to return to form amidst the uncertainty of the St. Louis Cardinals' starting pitching staff. The Cardinals starting rotation boasts no clear Ace and only one pitcher, Steven Matz, under contract beyond this year. Additionally, the team will have a new pitching coach in Dusty Blake.
The performance, one way or another, of Jack Flaherty will set the tone for the Cardinals in 2023. The most important factor for this year is remaining injury-free. We have seen the type of pitcher that Flaherty can be when he is healthy for long periods (2019 and the first half of 2021).
An additional by-product of Flaherty’s performance this year will be potential contract extension talks with the Cardinals. On February 18th, Flaherty mentioned that he would welcome the opportunity to potentially re-sign with the Cardinals and spend his career in St. Louis.
Of course, if Flaherty can rekindle the success he saw in 2019 and 2021, the 27-year-old will draw strong interest as an unrestricted free agent. The initial hurdle which is so crucial to the Cardinals' success in 2023: remain healthy and pitch like the undisputed Ace that the Front Office, Coaching Staff, and Cardinal fans know he can be. (Stats via Baseball-Reference.com)