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Jack Flaherty’s Orioles stint has been as bad as many feared

With a return from John Means on the horizon, it would take a miracle turnaround for Flaherty to find his way onto the O’s postseason roster.

Baltimore Orioles v. Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When the trade deadline came and went, it’s safe to say that many in Orioles fanbase were underwhelmed by the team’s moves. Seemingly in need of a top-of-the-rotation arm, Mike Elias and the Orioles front office instead settled on Jack Flaherty, a veteran righty from the St. Louis Cardinals with an up-and-down career. The hope, it seemed, would be that Flaherty would pad the rotation rather than lead it. But through six starts, it just has not worked out.

Flaherty’s overall numbers for the Orioles are bleak: six starts, 27.2 innings, 7.16 ERA, 5.18 FIP, and an .879 OPS against. To be fair, some of that is small sample size silliness at work. The 27-year-old was particularly bad in a start against the Padres last month (three innings, seven earned runs), and that has tilted his stat line from poor to disastrous.

But it’s not as if he has bounced back in any significant way since that outing. In his last three starts he has allowed 11 earned runs in only 13.2 innings of work. His OPS against in those three starts is a whopping .959. Yikes.

It does seem like the Orioles are making tweaks to his approach, or at least he has taken the initiative to do so himself. So far in September he has thrown far fewer sliders. The pitch used to make up 20-25% of his offerings. It’s down to 6.6% this month after getting smoked to the tune of a .737 slugging percentage in August.

Flaherty throws fastballs far more often now too. His four-seam usage jumped from 41.3% of pitches in August to 47.3% through two September starts. His cutter is also featured more frequently, going from 3.4% in July to 12.3% in August, and now 19.2% in September to become is second-favorite offering. Plus he has brought back his sinker on occasion, a pitch that was absent from his starts since July.

Unfortunately, none of it has been particularly effective. Flaherty is serving up far more hits and home runs when compared to his St. Louis days. That’s because the quality of contact he’s allowing is far harder. His hard hit rate in July was 37%. That climbed to 45.6% in August and now is 44.8% in September. And while he has cut down on the walks slightly (from 4.4 BB/9 with the Cardinals to 3.6 BB/9 with the Orioles), the number is still higher than you would like.

There might be some bad luck in Flaherty’s peripherals. For example, his .363 BABIP is crazy high. As is his 18.8% home run-per-fly ball ratio, a number that was at 10.4% during his time with the Cardinals this year. But much of that is simply the result of the contact he’s allowing.

The landscape of the Orioles rotation has changed a lot in the six weeks since Flaherty joined the staff. Kyle Bradish has carried his impressive July form through mid-September and now looks like a game one starter. Grayson Rodriguez has lived up to his top prospect billing. Dean Kremer puts the Orioles in a position to win each time out. And now, former ace John Means is nearly back from Tommy John surgery.

For the last month, the Orioles have opted for a six-man rotation rather than the typical five. Brandon Hyde recently said that the team may move away from that as the playoffs approach, but that the timing of such a move has not yet been decided. We do know that Cole Irvin has transitioned back to a bullpen role and John Means will get to start against the Cardinals on Tuesday. That might spell trouble for Flaherty at some point in the near future.

It seems that the Orioles intend to ease Means back into things. Doing that as part of a six-man rotation makes sense, especially since the Orioles have just one scheduled off day the rest of the regular season. It allows Means to get his feet wet after seeing nearly no MLB action in two years. Hopefully he does well and stakes claim to a postseason rotation spot. Either way, the expanded rotation gives him and the Orioles a safety net.

At the same time it gives Flaherty and Kyle Gibson, the team’s other struggling veteran, an opportunity to prove that they are the ones worthy of a role in October. It’s a classic “competition breeds excellence” approach. We’ll see how it goes.

The reality is that this current six-man set-up is likely to be trimmed to five in the next two weeks, and then down to four ahead of the postseason. If we assume that Bradish, Rodriguez, and Kremer have all earned their turn in the order next month, it becomes a battle of the most senior members of the staff to duke it out for the fourth and final spot.

There is a scenario in which Gibson or Means could make sense in a bullpen capacity on a postseason roster. Gibson appeared twice in relief for the NL Champion Phillies last postseason. Means began his big league career coming out of the bullpen, and may be the easiest to ratchet down to shorter outings given his recent rehab.

The same cannot be said for Flaherty. He does have two relief appearances in his big league career, but those came late in 2021 after he returned from a month-long IL stint. By and large, he’s a starter through and through.

It is entirely possible that Flaherty turns things around in the season’s final weeks and looks like a key piece of the Orioles postseason plans. But his work up until this point in the black and orange certainly doesn’t indicate that as a likely outcome. It only further validates the disappointment that many felt in early August.