photo: Adam Wainwright and Jack Flaherty (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports)
As our countdown of the St. Louis Cardinals top 10 stories of 2018 moves into the top five, the focus is on a trio of players who became unexpected top contributors – Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty and Harrison Bader.
Mikolas was an unknown – a former washout with the Texas Rangers who reinvented himself as a starting pitcher in Japan before joining the Cardinals as a free agent last December. Flaherty and Bader were highly-ranked homegrown Cardinals prospects who seemed to be blocked behind others before getting a chance to shine and running with it.
In 2018, the trio delivered an amazing 10.1 wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs WAR calculations. Mikolas and Flaherty were the top two pitchers on the staff, with Bader only behind Matt Carpenter among Cardinals position players.
Let’s view highlights of each.
Mikolas – Signed a two-year, $15.5 million contract on December 5, 2017, Mikolas essentially slotted into the rotation spot vacated by free agent Lance Lynn. A couple of bumpy spring training starts increased fan apprehension level, but it did not take long for the 30-year old to prove himself to be the club’s most dependable starting pitcher.
In fact, Mikolas was the only member of the rotation to remain there the entire season, making 32 starts and pitching 200 2/3 innings, while delivering a team-low 2.93 ERA. His quality start total of 20 was double that of the next-closest starter. Mikolas averaged 6 1/3 innings per outing, the only Cardinals pitcher to pitch into the seventh inning on average. He had both the lowest walk rate among starters (not just for St. Louis, but all of the National League) and the rotation’s best strikeout to walk ratio (fourth-best in the NL).
Perhaps most impressively, when Mikolas pitched, St. Louis won three of every four times (24 of 32) for a .750 winning percentage. Personally, he won 18 of 22 decisions, while no other rotation member won more than eight. His winning percentage of .818 led qualifying National League starters in 2018. Mikolas went 10-0 on the road, the best single-season away record of any pitcher in Cardinals history. At mid-season, he was St. Louis’ deserved National League All-Star pitching representative.
His 4.3 fWAR topped every pitcher signed as a free agent across Major League Baseball this past off-season, besting the likes of Yu Darvish (0.2), Jake Arrieta (2.0) and Shohei Ohtani (2.8 fWAR as a hitter and 1.0 on the mound), all of whom make substantially more money.
Flaherty – Unlike Mikolas, Flaherty did not have a rotation spot coming out of spring training. In fact, despite being the reigning Minor League Pitcher of the Year, he was slated to once again headline the Triple-A Memphis starting five. However, in what became a common theme through the season, every time Adam Wainwright went onto the disabled list, Flaherty stepped in. From one player’s misfortune, another prospered.
Midway through spring training, there seemed no room for the right-hander in St. Louis, so Flaherty was sent to minor league camp. However, as Wainwright headed for what would be his first of three disabled list stops, Flaherty was recalled from the back fields and given the start in St. Louis’ fifth game of the season. Following his five-inning, one run outing, he was optioned out as Wainwright was activated.
Flaherty returned from Memphis to make another spot start on April 28, again filling in for Wainwright, who went back on the DL. Though he was returned to Triple-A afterward, Flaherty was back with St. Louis for good on May 15, when – you guessed it – Wainwright went on the shelf for a third time.
With the former ace out for an extended period, Flaherty was able to start every fifth day and soon solidified his rotation spot. He went on to make a total of 28 starts for St. Louis.
Most of Flaherty’s numbers were second only to Mikolas on the Cardinals staff, and he was the second-best rookie pitcher in the National League after the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler.
Flaherty finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year Award voting after placing among first-year pitching leaders in a variety of categories, including wins (8, T1st), ERA (3.34, 3rd), strikeouts (182, 1st), opponent batting average (.199, 2nd), win percentage (.471, T1st), innings pitched (151.0, 2nd), starts (28, 2nd), quality starts (10, 4th) and walks (59, 1st).
Bader – Like Flaherty, Bader was recognized as the organization’s best in 2017 as the system-wide Player of the Year. Also like Flaherty, the right-handed hitter did not make the big-league roster out of spring camp, and like Flaherty, an injury opened the door to quickly return to the majors. In this case, Jedd Gyorko’s move to the disabled list during the first series of the regular season enabled Bader to join St. Louis before Memphis played its first game. He remained the rest of the way.
As Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham struggled, Bader earned more time and performed aggressively well – in the field, at the plate and on the bases – becoming a spark the Cardinals lineup had lacked for a long time. As Pham was traded in July and Fowler injured for the season, Bader took over in center field and did not look back. He appeared in 138 games, taking 379 at-bats.
Bader led both the Cardinals team and all National League rookies with 17 stolen bases despite usually hitting seventh or eighth in the order. According to Statcast, Bader tied for the MLB lead (not just rookies) in recording 21 Outs Above Average and was tops in five-star catches, those with less than 25 percent probability, with seven.
Bader finished in a tie for sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
Other top Cardinals first-year contributors included pitchers Austin Gomber, Daniel Poncedeleon and Jordan Hicks, who combined for 2.3 fWAR.
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