Flaherty seeking return to form ahead of pivotal season

February 26th, 2024

set a standard in 2019 and has chased it ever since.

In that season with the Cardinals, Flaherty finished fourth in National League Cy Young Award voting. He was widely viewed as one of the top young pitchers in baseball. Then came several years of injuries, inconsistencies, and too many walks.

Finally, last summer brought a glimpse at redemption: Flaherty posted a 3.03 ERA over five starts in July, enticing the Orioles to trade for him en route to a division title. Flaherty was poised to start in the playoffs for the first time since 2020.

He didn’t.

Flaherty’s ERA with Baltimore was 6.75. By mid-September, he’d lost his rotation spot. He made one postseason appearance, in relief, as the Rangers swept the favored Orioles.

Now Flaherty is a Tiger, awarded a one-year contract for a pivotal season in his career. His Grapefruit League debut on Monday in the Tigers' 4-0 victory could not have been more promising: He retired the Astros in order with a precise, 10-pitch first inning while showcasing the command that has been a focal point of his spring work.

Flaherty is 28 -- young enough to have a bright future, old enough that he’s no longer a prospect. In a recent conversation at the Tigers’ spring home in Lakeland, Fla., he reflected on the past and present of his baseball journey with humility and determination, with an eye toward the habits that made him a star not long ago.

“I had stretches where I was really good, even into the beginning of Baltimore, but sometimes you just know, you get that sense,” Flaherty said of his ’23 season. “Whatever I did last offseason didn’t work. Whether it truly was the offseason or Spring Training or the way I went about things, there’s no one true answer. It was like, 'Let’s get back to those things.'

“That’s what it comes down to: You have to be able to evaluate yourself and make those changes.”

And what are those changes?

“It’s not necessarily duration or working more, but when I’m working, being fully there,” Flaherty said. “It’s easy to have your mind wander, especially when you do it for a handful of years. I’ve been in pro ball for nine years, the big leagues for six. There’s a difference between working and being intentional while you’re working.”

Regarding the preparation for his final two seasons in St. Louis, in comparison to the 2023-2024 offseason, Flaherty said, “I can feel a difference between the way that I worked -- and the mental focus that went into it.”

Flaherty said earlier this month that he’s regaining the understanding of his pitch repertoire that he had in 2019 and also ’21, when he went 9-2 with a 3.22 ERA in an injury-shortened season. He credited Tigers pitching coaches Chris Fetter and Robin Lund for analyzing his bullpen sessions over video during the offseason, even before he arrived to Lakeland.

“Working with Fet and Robin, [I’ve] continued to make adjustments [back toward] how I was moving, and how the ball was coming out, during those times,” Flaherty said. “Whatever it was with my slider, [I’m working] to make the adjustments to get it back to where it needs to be.

“Understanding how to pitch, what makes me good, understanding the game, understanding little things … I made certain things a little bit bigger than they needed to be, but I think that understanding is starting to come back.”

With greater certainty in his own approach, Flaherty is able to more fully embrace his leadership role on the Tigers' young, promising staff. On the projected Opening Day roster, only Andrew Chafin, Shelby Miller, and Kenta Maeda have more Major League service time than Flaherty.

In the Spring Training clubhouse, Flaherty lockers in the same row as Maeda, 35, and fellow starters Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, and Casey Mize, all of whom are 27 or 26. The example of Adam Wainwright, who mentored Flaherty as a young pitcher in St. Louis, is foremost in his mind.

“First off, learning from a guy like Waino to be approachable and be willing to share,” Flaherty said. “You holding anything back is not going to help your team in any way. You may be selfish and [not] want to give all of it away, but for guys on your team, you want everybody to be great. That’s what he was able to do with me.

“It helps being closer in age [to the other starters] than I think some of them realize. Only being 28, yeah, I’ve been in it a little bit longer, but I’m right around the same age as the rest of them. I feel like I’m a little bit more approachable and can relate to them a little bit more than other situations. I’m just here and trying to feel my way around things. It takes me a little bit to get totally into the swing of things, but they’ve made it really easy on me.”

It sure looked that way on Monday, as the 28-year-old veteran donned a new uniform and pitched like his old self.