Cardinals Lose Flaherty to Oblique Strain, Further Thinning Their Rotation

In a rotation already stretched thin by injury, the last thing the Cardinals needed was to lose their top starter for an extended period. But that’s what happened on Monday night in Los Angeles as Jack Flaherty left his start against the Dodgers after five innings due to tightness in his left side and was placed on the injured list on Tuesday with an oblique strain that will likely sideline him for several weeks.

Matched up against Trevor Bauer, Flaherty allowed only two hits — back-to-back solo homers by Gavin Lux and Chris Taylor — while striking out nine and walking one over the course of five innings and 83 pitches. He reportedly felt some discomfort on his final pitches and then appeared to aggravate the injury while swinging the bat in the top of the sixth inning. Ain’t this single-season return of pitchers hitting great?

Flaherty didn’t take the bat off his shoulder after that 0–1 foul ball, striking out looking. He gave way to reliever Ryan Helsley in the bottom of the frame even as his teammates scored three runs off Bauer to take a 3–2 lead, but the Dodgers got their licks against Helsley and the rest of the Cardinals’ shaky bullpen and won 9–4.

Regarding Flaherty’s injury, manager Mike Shildt told reporters on Tuesday, “It’s not a minimal situation. It’s a real strain, tear, I don’t know which grade (they) want to call it. It’s significant that Jack is going to miss some time. And it’s going to be awhile. We’re still in the exploratory stage to determine how long.”

Via a 2017 study by former Dodgers athletic trainer Stan Conte of Conte Injury Analytics, pitchers typically take 35 days to recover from a Grade 1 oblique strain, the least severe type; hitters typically take 27 days. What’s more, Conte and his fellow researchers have also found that injuries to a player’s contralateral or leading side — that is, the left side for a right-handed batter or pitcher, as is the case for Flaherty — take an average of five days longer to recover than those to the trailing side. Meanwhile, via Derek Rhodes’ Pitcher Injury Dashboard, from 2009 to ’20, pitchers averaged 44.6 days missed due to oblique strains that required a stay on the injured list, with a median absence of 32 days. (Rhodes’ data does not distinguish between leading and trailing sides.)

All of which is to say that it appears unlikely that the Cardinals will get Flaherty back before the All-Star break. That’s a significant blow, as the 25-year-old righty has been the team’s top starter in terms of innings (62), strikeout rate (26.3%), strikeout-walk differential (18.4%), and WAR (1.0), and bettered only by John Gant in terms of ERA (2.90) and Kwang Hyun Kim in terms of FIP (3.68).

Which isn’t to say that Flaherty is in the midst of his best season. His strikeout rate is down 2.5 percentage points from last year and 3.6 points from 2019. As Carmen Ciardiello noted a couple of weeks ago, he’s been getting fewer swings and misses with his slider but has survived and even thrived thanks to some batted ball luck on his fastball, which helps to account for his .239 BABIP. His 4.47 xERA suggests he’s getting hit pretty hard, and indeed, his 90.2 mph average exit velocity is a career high, and his .333 xwOBA is his second-highest mark, eight points below last year but 43 points higher than his career norm.

But even if Flaherty wasn’t pitching quite up to the standards of the 2018–19 model, his loss leaves a huge void in a rotation that’s been middle-of-the-pack in the NL, ranking seventh in ERA (3.68) and ninth in FIP (4.25). St. Louis is also without Miles Mikolas, who missed all of the 2020 season due to surgery to repair a strained flexor tendon, then began this season on the IL due to shoulder soreness. He made just one start, on May 22, before returning to the IL due to forearm tightness; after receiving a stem cell injection, he was moved to the 60-day IL, so he’s out until late July at the earliest.

In a rotation that to these eyes has cried out for the addition of another experienced arm for a while now, that leaves Kim, Gant, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, and likely Johan Oviedo to hold down the fort. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, it’s not the 2013 models of Wainwright and Martinez who are available. The latter pair of righties have been serviceable, making 10 and nine starts, respectively; the last time the Cardinals got at least that much out of both in the rotation in the same season was in 2017. That said, both have been a bit worse than league average in terms of ERA (4.22 for each) and FIP (4.49 for Wainwright and 4.08 for Martinez), though the latter has been getting by with a paltry 13.6% strikeout rate and an unsustainable .232 BABIP that’s papering over his 5.24 xERA, the highest from among the team’s starters.

Kim rebounded from a bout of back tightness that prevented him from debuting until April 17 and has been fine if not good when called upon, with a 3.65 ERA and career-best (albeit well below the league average) 20.0% strikeout rate. As for Gant, who has returned to the rotation for the first time since 2018, he’s outpitched his peripherals to such a degree that the differential between his ERA and his FIP is the majors’ highest:

Largest ERA-FIP Differentials
Pitcher Team IP K% BB% HR/9 ERA FIP E-F
John Gant STL 50.2 17.4% 15.2% 0.18 1.60 3.98 -2.38
John Means BAL 70.1 25.9% 4.9% 1.41 2.05 3.83 -1.78
Trevor Bauer LAD 76.1 32.7% 7.8% 1.53 2.24 3.85 -1.61
Lance Lynn CHW 52.2 26.9% 7.1% 0.68 1.37 2.86 -1.50
Justin Dunn SEA 45.1 23.4% 14.1% 0.99 3.18 4.56 -1.39
Josh Fleming TBR 45.1 15.6% 6.7% 0.99 2.98 4.25 -1.28
Luis Garcia HOU 53.0 28.2% 8.0% 1.36 2.72 3.96 -1.24
Tarik Skubal DET 49.0 26.1% 10.6% 2.39 4.59 5.78 -1.19
Domingo Germán NYY 55.0 23.5% 4.5% 1.80 3.27 4.44 -1.17
Cristian Javier HOU 52.2 29.5% 11.0% 1.37 3.08 4.23 -1.16
Casey Mize DET 57.2 20.1% 8.5% 1.09 3.28 4.43 -1.15
Robbie Ray TOR 58.0 29.0% 6.3% 2.17 3.57 4.72 -1.15
Adrian Houser MIL 53.2 21.2% 10.2% 1.51 3.86 4.86 -1.01
Kyle Gibson TEX 60.1 20.1% 7.9% 0.45 2.24 3.23 -0.99
Marcus Stroman NYM 64.2 20.0% 5.0% 0.97 2.64 3.62 -0.98
Minimum 40 innings pitched. All statistics through June 1.

Gant’s walk rate is the majors’ second-highest among the 123 pitchers who have thrown 40 innings, and his strikeout-walk differential is the second-lowest. His strikeout rate itself is in just the 12th percentile from among that group. Throw in his 2.6% HR/FB rate, the third-lowest from among those pitchers, and all signs point to significant regression ahead.

Later this summer, prospects Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson could provide reinforcements, according to Shildt, but for now, it appears that the job will fall to Oviedo, a 23-year-old, 6-foot-6 righty out of Cuba. Oviedo made five starts for St. Louis last year after splitting the previous season between High-A and Double-A, and has made four starts and one relief appearance this year. After a spot start on May 28, he was optioned to Triple-A, though he actually never went further than the taxi squad, and he rejoined the roster as the flip side of the Flaherty move. He has yet to find significant success at the major league level, pitching to a 5.44 ERA and 5.63 FIP with strikeout and walk rates that are too close for comfort (15.7% and 12.3%, respectively). That jibes with the 35 grade Eric Longenhagen placed on his command, ranking him eighth among the Cardinals’ top prospects in April:

“Oviedo has a workhorse starter’s build that comps to a young Josh Beckett, he throws really hard, and he flashes above-average breaking stuff. All of these components are present intermittently, but Oviedo just hasn’t leveled up as a strike-thrower yet, and his slider and curveball aren’t nasty enough to override his loose command; they need to be located. The same is true of Oviedo’s fastball. Even though it’s in the mid-90s and has something close to a backspinning axis, his size creates more downhill plane on the pitch than a fastball with these other traits wants to have. “

Given a pitching staff that ranks 13th in the NL with a 21.1% strikeout rate, the Cardinals’ defense is once again carrying a heavy load. Despite the injuries of centerfielder Harrison Bader (who’s been limited to 22 games by a right forearm strain and, last week, a hairline fracture of his ribs) and shortstop Paul DeJong (out since May 14 due to a rib fracture), the unit has generally been above average. The team ranks sixth in the NL in both defensive efficiency (.708, seven points above average) and DRS (13), though St. Louis is just 17th in the majors in Outs Above Average both for its infielders (1) and outfielders (-1). Tommy Edman has done a fine impression of the second baseman he replaced, Kolten Wong, ranking second in the majors in OAA (6) and tied for fourth in DRS (5), but Nolan Arenado, whose arrival necessitated Edman’s move from the hot corner, has yet to click (-3 OAA, 0 DRS, 1.7 UZR), and Dylan Carlson is no Bader in the middle pasture (-1 OAA and -1 DRS to +3 and +4, respectively).

The good news for the Cardinals is that despite outscoring their opponents by a single run and slipping out of first place in the NL Central by going 9–10 over the past three weeks, they’re nonetheless 31–24, just half a game behind the Cubs for the division lead. They’ll have to eke out the next several weeks while hoping that nothing more goes wrong in their rotation, or with the recoveries of Flaherty and Mikolas. Luckily for them, their upcoming schedule is soft, with just 11 of their 36 games before the All-Star break coming against teams that are currently .500 or better (two against Cleveland, six against the Cubs, and three against the Giants).

As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Derrick Goold pointed out, the free agent market offers a couple of familiar names who might be ready sooner rather than later given their current participation in Team USA’s effort to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, namely Homer Bailey and Edwin Jackson. Meanwhile, as we look to the upcoming trade deadline, Max Scherzer’s name stands out in bold letters. A pending free agent on a team that’s currently just 22–29, Scherzer controls his own destiny to some degree via his 10-and-5 rights, and the fact that he’s a St. Louis native and local legend could give the Cardinals an inside track if the Nationals look to move him — and if they are willing to pay the cost in salary and prospects. Still, they have a lot of baseball to play before that even becomes a possibility, and they’ll have to do it without one of their best.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

Disappointed that the “These Eyes” link wasn’t to The Guess Who.