First, it was Chris Carpenter’s rotation. Then, it was Adam Wainwright’s. Now, it clearly belongs to Jack Flaherty.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ third-year pitcher finished fourth in the National League’s Cy Young voting – and 13th in MVP voting – after fanning 231 batters over 196 1/3 innings with a 2.75 ERA.
To stay on top, Flaherty plans to continue to follow the advice Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson gave him.
“To be on the attack consistently,” Flaherty said. “That’s what he preached. He said he was consistently on the attack no matter the situation and no matter what was going on. Pitching inside, too. [Gibson] did that. He doesn’t think he ever hit anybody. They hit themselves because they were looking out over the plate.”
Last year was the breakout season for the 24-year-old Flaherty as a pitcher. The Cardinals right-hander was 8-9 as a rookie in 2018. In his second season, Flaherty blossomed into one of the top starters in baseball.
If the first half of Flaherty’s 2019 season was pedestrian, the second half was beyond reproach. At the midpoint, he was 4-5 with a 4.90 ERA in his first 17 starts. That changed in the second half.
Following the All-Star break, Flaherty produced a 0.91 ERA. He earned Pitcher of the Month honors in August and September.
In those 15 regular season starts following the break, he held opposing hitters to a .142 batting average. He allowed only five home runs in those 15 starts and moved from a developing prospect to an unquestioned ace.
“I don’t really know how to quantify [confidence],” Flaherty said. “It’s one of those things, you just kind of get more comfortable the more experience you get, the more times you do it. The more seasons you get.”
St. Louis manager Mike Shildt certainly took notice. “It was impressive for a younger guy or for anybody to do as well as Jack did in the second half,” Shildt said. “I don’t think people would argue that it was probably the best second-half performance from a pitching standpoint. He got there by being very intentional about what he did. Jack just looks and seeks every day to just get better. He strives to get better physically, emotionally and mentally and all the things that come with that.”
The 2019 season solidified Flaherty as one of the league’s premier pitchers.
He finished 2019 with a 2.75 ERA. He went 11-8 in 33 starts and struck out 231 batters. He became the third-youngest pitcher in baseball history to strike out at least 230 and walk 55 or fewer with a 2.75 ERA or lower. Following the season, he was nominated for his first-ever Gold Glove and finished fourth in National League Cy Young Award voting.
The death of a close friend, 27-year-old Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, fueled Flathery’s rise in the second half of the season.
“It literally fell right in line with it,” Flaherty said. “He passed away and I threw in Seattle the next day. From there, it was San Francisco and then the All-Star break and from there, it kind of took off. You could kind of feel and tell that when something goes on like that that someone is looking out for you and watching over you.”
Skaggs died on July 1. His death was ruled an accident while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Flaherty and Skaggs were both from California. The two worked out together in the offseason.
As for 2020, Shildt believes Flaherty will post another fine season for the Cardinals.
“He’s obviously a super talented guy, super smart guy who’s looking to evolve,” Shildt said. “He just needs to continue to grow and stay hungry which I don’t think will be a problem for Jack.”
While the Cardinals don’t know when Opening Day will be, given the state of the coronavirus response nationally, one thing is certain: If he remains healthy, Flaherty is getting the ball on Opening Day.
“It’s one of those things you work for and you want it,” Flaherty said.
The Opening Day nod came one season after Flaherty pitched the home opener for the Cardinals.
“It’s cool,” Flaherty said. “Just happy I get the ball first, get the first chance to go out and kind of set the tone for the season.”