Injuries are a definite pitfall for any starting pitcher. That had included St. Louis Cardinals pitching prospect Jack Flaherty, but the 2016 Palm Beach Cardinal accomplished a feat he had not achieved as a profession previously.
Staying healthy for a full minor league season.
Flaherty, fresh off his 21st birthday last month, attained just that during his bumpy, yet successful 2016 campaign.
The 6-foot-4 right-hander, drafted out of Harvard-Westlake High School in California, eclipsed his previous career-high of 95 innings for Low-A Peoria in 2015, hurling 134 innings over 24 games (23 starts) for the Beach Birds this past season.
The Cardinals’ 2014 first-rounder also posted 3.56 ERA, including 45 walks to 126 strikeouts against Florida State League hitters. The question isn't how he started the season, but how he finished.
Through his first 18 starts (Apr. 7 to July 26), Flaherty compiled a 2-8 record with 4.23 ERA (95 2/3 IP). He ended his second full season, posting a stellar 1.88 ERA over his final five starts (38 1/3 IP, July 27 to Sept. 2), including a 10-strikeout performance against Port St. Lucie (NYM).
In this exclusive interview, Flaherty details his 2016 season along with offseason plans and goals for 2017.
Derek Shore: How could you characterize your second full pro season?
Jack Flaherty: “It was a learning experience. It was nice to stay healthy and get through a full season healthy. I think that was big for me to be able to stay healthy and get through a full season. It had its up and downs, but it was a good learning experience for me in being able to work out some kinks and finish off the season strong.”
DS: You opened in the Florida State League by posting a troublesome 6.46 ERA in the month of April before pitching to the level in May and pitching above it in June with a 1.04 ERA over four starts. What would you attribute to those up-and-down results in the first half?
JF: “In the first month, I know my first start of the year was definitely my worst - hands down nothing went well that day, and I think that leads to the elevated ERA in the month of April. I started off slow, but I was able to start attacking the zone better, get ahead of hitters, and that’s when I had more success. That just came from working with my catcher, the pitching coach, and all the coaches on the staff.
“Being able to get ahead, allowed me to trust my defense more. They were good all year. It was just a matter of me getting ahead in the count; attacking hitters and putting them on their heels.”
DS: As you began the second half, your month of July took a negative turn, but after that shaky July 26th start everything seemed to trend the other direction for you. What changed as you finished out the season?
JF: “I really think it was the same thing. I started attacking hitters more, and the walks went down. I had one start towards the end of the year where I lost my control and command. Other than that - as I finished out the year - I was just throwing more strikes, getting ahead of hitters, was able to command my secondary stuff, and throw it in multiple counts.
"All in all, it was getting ahead because when I got ahead, that's when the defense was always there. They made good plays all year."
DS: You absorbed a healthy amount of innings this past season, getting a career-high 134 innings pitched under your belt. How important is that for your development as you ascend to the upper levels next year?
JF: "It's always important. It was very important for me to stay healthy the whole time and getting an idea of what a true full season is like. While I was with Peoria, I technically went through a full season, but I missed the first month, and it was frustrating for me.
"It was big for me to stay healthy - get all those innings under my belt- and get an idea of what it felt like to throw that amount of innings. I also learned how to take care of my arm while finding a between-start routine that really worked, especially as the season went on and we got into the later part of the season."
DS: I saw you pitch in late-May and came away impressed with your ability to command all four pitches. Is that something you look to do at all times?
JF: "I always look to do that. A pitcher's dream is to go into every start and have every pitch working that day where you can throw it in any count. In reality, that's rarely ever going to be the case where you go into a start and have everything working. It goes start-to-start. We have to figure out what's working that day - what we have.
"Then maybe, if I'm able to get through and get to the later innings - I'm able to find a secondary pitch that wasn't there earlier in the game. It's all game-to-game and between starts - working with side work to figure out what's working. What adjustments do I need to make? Who we are facing? What pitches work better against them and another team?
"It's game-to-game, but it's also an inning-to-inning process of just figuring out what's working that day and if it's not there in the beginning - we can find as the game goes on."
DS: What do you mix and match as hitters develop a feel for your pitch sequencing?
JF: "That's something I've definitely been trying to learn. It's something that came along towards the end of this year. That's one of the things I've been really trying to figure out. How do I set-up a hitter this way? Which pitch do I think he's sitting on? What's the best way to attack him?
"Each game I sit down with my catcher, and we go over the game plan, and we're going to try to execute it a certain way. When it comes to mixing and matching, that's a tough question because it's something I'm still trying to learn and master.
"For me, it's pitching off the fastball and if I'm able to command that, then everything will build off that for me. So, we try to establish the fastball early in the game and if we pitch off that - the secondary stuff comes naturally. Whatever's working that day, we try to stick with it and execute the game plan we have."
DS: Would you talk about the improvements you made with each of your pitch offerings?
JF: "I think as the season went on - for that stretch in June and August - I was able to command my fastball a lot better. During that time, I felt like I had most of my success because I was able to get ahead with my fastball and pitch off that.
"I felt like my slider got better as the season went on. It just got tighter and harder; got a little more depth to it. I felt like early in the season hitters were recognizing it and it was just kind of spinning up there. It wasn't effective. I felt as the season went on it definitely got tighter.
"Then, my changeup was more consistent with me being able to throw it for strikes more."
DS: A lot of scouts praise you for your polish and ability to cut, sink, and manipulate your fastball, but see more velocity in the tank. Obviously, it's not everything, but do you think there’s more velocity coming?
JF: "I don't see why not. I can't see my velocity in the future. I don't if there's going to be just a jump in velocity or what's going to happen. Honestly, I'm hoping that there is. Maybe later on, we'll see a tick or two. As of right now, I'm just working with what I've got and I'm not going to pitch like somebody I'm not.
"I'm trying to go out there and execute - get ahead of guys and be able to mix and match my pitches when I need to."
DS: How motivating was it for you to see fellow pitching prospects Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes reach the big-leagues this past season?
JF: "That was awesome, especially with Weaver coming in at the same time I got drafted. I've had a very good relationship with him since the first day I met him. He's an awesome guy. I'm really happy for him to get that opportunity this year. He did well and it was so much fun to watch to see him basically do what we all know he can do.
"And the same thing goes for Alex. That was fun to watch. I think all of us in the organization knew he has a special arm. It was just cool to see him get up to the big-leagues and do it at that level. He showed everybody he's got a special arm.
"I'm very happy for both of them. It definitely motivates me to be able to see guys you know get to where you want to be is definitely a motivating factor because you want to get there and be there with them and do what they have done.
DS: What does your offseason plan consist of this winter?
JF: "It's pretty much the same thing. I've been training since I've got home; take a few weeks off. Sometime in the near future where going to start with some baseball activity. It's just being in the weight room, staying healthy, getting stronger, and working hard getting ready for next year."
DS: What are your goals for this upcoming season?
JF: "Go into spring and just continue to get better. Continue to learn and try to get what I can from each coach. For me, its try to be more prepared for that start of the season to start off strong and be more consistent this next year. Not have so many ups and downs and have a consistent year."
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
© 2016 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com and scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.