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Trying to sort through a playoff dilemma

About a week and a half ago, our own Tara Wellman offered up this little gem of a tweet:

When the poll closed 24 hours later, Tara tweeted out that Mikolas led the poll for the majority of the 24 hour period but Flaherty took the lead late and won it by a nose. It’s something interesting to consider. As the Cards keep playing well – and the Cubs do, too – it’s becoming increasingly likely that the Cards are going to have the opportunity to participate in the 1 game, do-or-die Wild Card playoff game and that probability begs the question, “Who should the Cards send to the mound in that game?”

First, this assumes (obviously) that the Cards will get to select one or the other. As of now, both starters are positioned to start against the Cubs in the final series of the season and, if the team is forced to use both, it may not get the choice of Mikolas or Flaherty. But let’s for the sake of argument assume that Shildt and the front office execs do have that choice.

It’s an interesting conundrum. Rookie starters are generally not a team’s first choice or best option in a do-or-die playoff game but Flaherty has pitched so well, especially of late, that he just might be the team’s best starting pitcher already. Flaherty has the better ERA (2.83 to 3.06) but Mikolas has the better FIP (3.40 to 3.79). Flaherty strikes out more batters and appears to have the more dominant stuff but he also walks more batters and gives up more homers. If it boils down to it, would you rather have the pitcher on the mound who has the potential to be more dominant or would you rather have the guy on the mound who’s more likely to give up singles but less likely to walk batters or give up homers?

Over the last month, Flaherty has been better without a doubt. Maybe that matters. On the other hand, we’re still 3 weeks away from the end of the regular season and, by then, maybe Mikolas will be hotter. Over the last 30 games, it’s actually Mikolas with the higher HR rate and so Flaherty, despite a higher walk rate and because of a higher K rate, has a much lower FIP (3.44 to 4.24). The difference in their ERAs over the last month is even more pronounced as Flaherty has a 1.45 ERA over that time period compared to Mikolas’ 4.60. It’s noteworthy, however, that there has to be a lot of luck for Flaherty during this period as his strand rate is a ridiculously high 97% and his BABIP a ridiculously low .175. Neither of those is anywhere close to sustainable.

A couple of days ago, the Athletic’s Bernie Miklasz suggested that the problems that Mikolas has suffered from over his last several starts may be the result of some fatigue. If so, that’s a concern. He’s not going to get any days off in the last 3 weeks with the Cardinals needing to win as often as possible in order to have a chance to play in that game so if he’s tired now, he’s going to be tired when the Wild Card game comes calling. It’s true that last year was the only time he’s approached pitching this many innings in a season and he’s going to be at more than 200 by the time we get to the Wild Card game. On the other hand, Flaherty has already thrown 10 more innings this season than he’s ever thrown before and it’s likely that he’ll throw 30 or so more in the last 3 weeks of the season. If Mikolas is tired, isn’t it pretty likely that Flaherty will be, too, by the time we get to game 163?

Maybe their respective quality of contact can inform us as to who should be on the bump in that fateful meeting. It’s difficult to say whether we should prefer the guy with more K’s or the guy with fewer BB’s and HR’s so maybe the damage that opposing hitters do when they make contact can inform this decision a little. A quick look at Baseball Savant tells us that Flaherty has allowed an expected wOBA of .279 this season while Mikolas is at .304. Just for reference, that .279 xwOBA puts him in the same neighborhood as Clayton Kershaw (.281). Now, Kershaw’s not the Kershaw of 2-3 years ago but he’s still damned good. That .279 xwOBA is lower than Gerrit Cole’s .285 as well so there’s some pretty good company. Mikolas has been no slouch, of course, as his .304 is equal to Dallas Keuchel’s and just higher than James Paxton’s (.300). But only 7 starting pitchers in the majors with 500+ results have a lower xwOBA than Flaherty and we’re talking the elite of the elite in 2018 – Chris Sale, Trevor Bauer, Justin Verlander, Jacob DeGrom, Aaron Nola, Noah Syndergaard, and Max Scherzer. Really good company.

Still, do you really want a 22 year old rookie with less than 150 major league innings taking the mound in a do-or-die game if you can avoid it? There are numerous stories of rookies pitching well in huge games but those guys were almost never the team’s first choice. They were usually thrust into those situations based on where they were in the rotation. Tara and I discussed this exact dilemma just a few days ago. To quote Tara,

My initial react was Flaherty. He’s showed not only incredible talent, but also poise and leadership and the right kind of emotion for a playoff race. But, Mikolas pull the “veteran” card…but, should he? He’s never faced the pressure of an MLB playoff race either.

Tara’s reaction captures the essence of the dilemma. Mikolas is a vet. He’s never pitched in the major league playoffs but he has thrown a lot of innings over many years and has been around the block, so to speak. Flaherty, however, just pitched against Scherzer in a holiday game and has shown a ton of poise for a guy who’s barely old enough to legally drink alcohol. Still, a playoff game is a whole ‘nother beast.

So maybe it does come down to the difference in their repertoire. On the one hand, it would be nice to have a guy on the mound in that game who can get an important punch-out when it’s needed. On the other hand, a walk and a bomb could end that game quickly and the opponent might have to get 3 hits in an inning in order to score on Mikolas. Just as Flaherty could get a K in a pinch, Mikolas is more likely to be able to get an important double play.

I never voted in Tara’s poll. I was more interested in seeing what others thought. My initial reaction was to vote for Mikolas but – I suppose like the people who turned the tables in favor of Flaherty as the 24 hour window closed – I veered toward the kid as I thought more about it. It’s worth noting that Flaherty was dominating the Pirates during the same time that the poll was in effect and that might have affected the poll’s results, just as it might have affected my viewpoint. But thinking about it 10 days later, I think I’m still in Flaherty’s camp.

The prospect of a walk and a blast putting the Cards in a 2-run hole scares me but, in my mind, he gives the team the best chance of shutting down the opponent, whoever that is. His stuff, his command, and his poise are just that good. It will be up to Shildt, Maddux, and Yadi to keep his adrenaline under control but I truly believe that they won’t have to do a whole lot. Flaherty just seems to be wired the way you want an elimination game starter to be wired. What if his youth does get to him? Well, then the team goes to the bullpen early and it becomes a valuable learning experience for all the big games that Flaherty will pitch for the team in the years to come.

Thanks as always to Baseball Savant and Baseball Reference. Thanks to @cardinalsgifs for the brilliant pic and thanks to all of you for reading.


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