When he heard how a colleague sent his young client a congratulations text for finishing fifth two years ago in the National League Rookie of the Year vote, agent Ryan Hamill grimaced. A former catcher in the Cardinals organization, Hamill knew as well as anyone when it came to Jack Flaherty “you never congratulate on second-best.” Let alone, ugh, fifth.
The same went for a one-hitter if Flaherty’s team lost or a shutout through six if Flaherty didn’t finish, Hamill learned from experience. It’s just not “how Jack is wired,” he explained. When Flaherty took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Giants on the eve of the 2019 All-Star break, a solo homer — the only run he allowed — scarred an otherwise brilliant gem. Hamill knew to wait, not congratulate, and watch Flaherty for cues.
What he saw was a shift.
“I think he learned to be driven by momentum,” Hamill said. “Success is pitch to pitch, batter to batter, and momentum is something different. He wasn’t looking back at what didn’t happen. He was working ahead to what could. I saw this very visceral change in Jack last year. It was like he said, ‘I’m going to will this momentum on you.’ He didn’t just want to beat you. He wanted to win the next at-bat by taking the will from you in this at-bat.”
The game in San Francisco proved a harbinger of the half season ahead — one of the finest ever by a starter in Major League Baseball history — and what’s followed is a young pitcher growing into the role of leader, for his team and his sport.
Although his first opening day start comes in only his second opening day on the roster, Flaherty enters 2020 as one of baseball’s rising rock stars. He found his footing on the mound last summer and amplified his voice away from the field this spring. In the previous 128 years, the Cardinals have had more team names than Cy Young Award winners. Flaherty opens the shortened, 60-game season as a favorite, primed to be the club’s third.
“Some guys struggle with being put out there and have that pressure on them,” said Chris Carpenter, the last Cardinal to win the Cy. “They don’t want it. They want to be the guy behind the guy, and they’ll do fine there. Jack’s consumed by getting better. He’s not afraid to be great.”
After the All-Star break, Flaherty allowed fewer runs (11) than he had starts (15), and his 0.91 ERA was the third-lowest ever. No pitcher had thrown as many innings in the second half as Flaherty’s 99 1/3 and had a lower ERA, or been as young as Flaherty, then 23, doing it. Greg Maddux’s 0.87 second-half ERA in 1994 came in 52 innings. Jake Arrieta’s 0.75 ERA in the second half of 2015 came at age 29. Both of them won the Cy Young Award in those seasons. Flaherty finished fourth.
Don’t congratulate. Wait.
“I really don’t have to think about not getting complacent,” he said. “I’m never satisfied.”
How Flaherty, now 24, reached the precipice of elite is a model of scouting, development, parenting, preparation, and the warp engine of his own ambition. An adopted son of a single mother, Flaherty recently told former Cardinal Matt Holliday on his podcast, “Table Forty,” that when asked where he gets his work ethic he usually says, “I don’t know any other way.” He’s come to realize that’s true because of the example set by his mom, Eileen. Manager Mike Shildt says the Cardinals may like to take credit, “but Jack became a frontline big leaguer when he was a junior in high school with the way he went about things. Jack created that.”
Compelled by his athleticism, mature feel for four pitches, and what they knew of his constitution, the Cardinals drafted Flaherty 34th overall in 2014 as only the second high school righthander they took as high in the previous 22 years. His early seasons were sturdy, but he didn’t have the fashionable, supercharged fastball to rate as a leading prospect.
That’s fine. He wasn’t out to impress radar guns. What he had was a competitive cayenne, a plan, and the attention of his pitching coaches.
“There are guys, as a pitching coach, you know you’ve got to keep an eye on, make sure he’s working on this or not doing that,” said Jason Simontacchi, the former Cardinal who was Flaherty’s coach at Class AA Springfield in 2017. “Not Jack. Jack was one of those guys where you know it was his game, and you could become a fan watching and seeing how he’s going to deal. He was kind of the underdog there, but, dude, when a guy got to second, he went into fifth gear and, no, he isn’t scoring. That’s when you saw it. Jack was on a mission.”
The same year Flaherty made his Class AA debut, he threw his first pitch at Class AAA, appeared in the Futures Game, and ended the season with a start in the majors. His accelerated rise matched that of his fastball. A scouting report entering 2017 pegged him as an 89-92 mph pitcher. He averaged 93.4 mph by season’s end, and by 2019 was up to 94.3 mph. The wait for his velocity was over, fast. In August and September — when he became the first Cardinal to win NL pitcher of the month twice in the same year and in back-to-back months — he averaged 95.2 mph. At Wrigley Field in September, during an eight-inning win, his 118th and final pitch was 97.6 mph.
The faith to unleash the fastball came only after a first half spent searching for mechanics and consistency. Counts kept collapsing on him. Innings mushroomed. And even after the game against the Giants his ERA floated at 4.64. Of the 78 starters who qualified for the ERA race at the break, only 16 had a higher ERA than Flaherty’s.
In early July, as he readied for a start in Seattle, the sudden death of close friend and Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs left Flaherty mourning. Looking for answers on the mound, he found direction off it. Hamill, who represented both players, said he saw Flaherty “learn to embrace the moment, relish it, because he had new perspective.” Adam Wainwright visited Flaherty in his hotel room the night after Skaggs’ death, and the veteran would later tell Shildt how the young righthander was ready for the next day’s start but would struggle or throw a no-hitter, no in between.
“And it was like the next two months every time he went out there he might throw a no-hitter today,” Wainwright said. “His level of focus went a tick up, like I’m competing now in the memory of a friend. With Jack, there was always an edginess to him. It was a controlled anger, and you could sense it coming off of him. But he wasn’t mad at the world. It was more like, ‘I’m fixing to show the world I’m in control and you don’t have a chance.’”
As he pitched his way toward Maddux and Arrieta, Flaherty allowed one or fewer runs in 13 of his final 16 starts. More assertive with his four-seam fastball, he allowed two homers to righthanded hitters the entire second half, none in seven starts at Busch Stadium. Aggressive with his choice slider to both lefties and righthanders, Flaherty allowed fewer batters to reach base (76) than he struck out. Put another way, opponents’ total bases, walks, and hit batters added up to 101. He struck out 124. He K’d 231 for the season. Only Bob Gibson has had more in a single season as a Cardinal.
And Flaherty did all that at a time of swollen offense. Arrieta’s celebrated second half with the Cubs and his 0.75 ERA came in a year when only one team scored more than 765 runs.
Flaherty’s came in a summer when the league average was 782 runs.
“I look at you and think you’re a bad man on the mound,” Holliday told him in the podcast.
Flaherty has increasingly talked about using his “platform” for good, and he has looked to be an active part of generating interest in youth baseball and inspiring more African-American boys to play the game. He is emerging as a new, prominent face of the game — a talented pitcher who, twice renewed by the Cardinals, also personifies the suppressed salaries of young players. He’s utilized social media in recent months to skewer the laborious negotiations between owners and players, and also draw attention to social justice causes. A friend of his described how “everything is coming together at once for him.”
That includes becoming the sum of his mentors. He has pages in his journal filled with advice from Wainwright. He texts with Carpenter, emails with Gibson, and was poised to chase them all when his opening day start was pushed back — until now.
He’s done waiting.
An ace delayed is not an ace denied.
“There’s like this calmness to him and then under the surface you see an urgency to be great,” starter Miles Mikolas said. “At first, he just wanted to be the best of himself. Now he’s realized when he’s at his best — well, he’s probably one of the best in the league, if not the best pitcher in the league. You see that look in his face, and he may want it more than everybody else.
“That’s one reason he’s going to get it.”