Jack Flaherty, a former two-time American Family Insurance ALL-USA pitcher from Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) opened a few eyes on March 31 when he threw four shutout innings against the St. Louis Cardinals’ major league players in an exhibition.
“That game was fun,” Flaherty said. “It was a great atmosphere to be in. It was a really good experience. Just taking away from it, at least in that game, there were guys on base but I was able to make pitches to get out of it. Knowing that no matter what the situation is, no matter who might be at the dish, if I’m able to make my pitch and execute it, there’s a chance of good things happening. I guess it was a confidence booster.”
Since then, the 21-year-old right-hander is off to one of the hottest starts in the minor leagues. Going into his fifth start tonight for Double-A Springfield, Mo., he leads the Texas League with a 4-0 record, an 0.56 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP. He has 28 strikeouts with just four walks in 32.1 innings.
“I’m just really being able to execute when I need to and I’m throwing other pitches other than my fastball for strikes,” Flaherty said. “It’s not like too much has changed. I’m just doing things better.”
Last season, his third in the minors, Flaherty had his worst winning percentage and ERA, going 5-9 and 3.56, but he also threw his most innings in 134 and had a solid WHIP (1.30) and hitters only hit .254 against him. Gary LaRoque, the St. Louis Cardinals’ director of player development, said Flaherty has worked hard to get better.
“As a credit to Jack, everything has improved steadily,” LaRoque said. “He’s on the mound more, gaining more experience and facing more hitters. He certainly has a great demeanor on the mound. He competes well and he’s learning his stuff and learning how to set up hitters. A real credit to him that he started off well and he continues to challenge himself.”
Springfield Cardinals manager Johnny Rodriguez said the difference this season is less physical than mental for Flaherty.
“The change from last year to this year and being dominant at this level is every pitch he makes, he has conviction,” Rodriguez said. “He’s not afraid to of throwing any pitch at any time and knowing he can get the hitter out. He believes he can do anything he wants with his pitches.”
Flaherty is a solid 6-4 and 205 pounds and has a mid-90s fastball. He also has a slider and a deceptive curveball with a big drop. Flaherty has a simple windup that helps with his pitch placement.
“I’ve tried to make it a little more smooth,” he said. “It was a little bit, not herky jerky, but it wasn’t as smooth. It’s always been simple, never too complicated. I’m just trying to get in a position to be athletic and get my arm in on time and be able to execute in whatever situation I need to.”
In the offseason, he went back to California and worked on his flexibility and pitching arsenal.
“I worked with the same trainer I worked with in high school,” Flaherty said. “I did yoga a few times a week, just working on helping my body recover and learning different ways to stretch myself out. I did some throwing, but not just throwing, but really having a purpose, always working on something.”
Flaherty wasn’t a regular starter his first two seasons at Harvard-Westlake because the Wolverines had Lucas Giolito and Max Fried, who were two years ahead of him. Once they graduated, Flaherty went 23-0 his final two seasons. Giolito had a brief call-up to the Washington Nationals last season and is at Triple-A Charlotte this season. Last week, Fried was named the Southern League pitcher at Double-A Montgomery, Ala.
Flaherty is part of another young but talented starting staff at Springfield that includes Sandy Alcantara, Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber and Matt Pearce.
“We talk all the time,” Flaherty said. “Everybody on the staff is talented. On any given night, any of them could go seven innings with no runs. We talk about other teams, what other guys see when they pitch. There’s constant communication and we’re all looking to help each other out.”
Last season, there were six former ALL-USA players in the Major League All-Star team — Manny Machado, Mike Trout, Francisco Lindor, Kris Bryant, Clayton Kershaw and Eric Hosmer. There’s more where that came from in the pipeline and Flaherty leads a group of former ALL-USA players who are off to hot starts in the high minors.
Here are a few others who could be up in the majors soon:
- Clint Frazier, a 2013 ALL-USA outfielder from Loganville, Ga., is tied for the team lead with 14 RBI at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, Pa.
- Henry Owens, a 2011 ALL-USA left-handed pitcher from Edison (Huntington Beach, Calif.) is 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA at Triple-A Pawtucket, R.I.
- Kaleb Cowart, a 2010 ALL-USA infielder from Cook County (Adel, Ga.), is hitting .317 at Triple-A Salt Lake City.
- Alex Verdugo, a 2014 ALL-USA outfielder from Sahuaro (Tucson, Ariz.) is hitting .333 at Triple-A Oklahoma City.