BRADENTON, Fl. – Eric O’Flaherty wasn’t just one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball prior to the 2015 season. He was one of the best relievers in baseball. From a results standpoint, he finished with the second best ERA among 105 relievers with 200+ innings from 2010-2014. He was also the top lefty during that span.
ERA isn’t the best way to evaluate relievers, but his numbers held up in the advanced metrics. He finished 30th overall in xFIP in that same group, and 8th overall for lefties. His WPA during that span ranked 16th overall, and 2nd overall for lefties, finishing only behind Aroldis Chapman.
You wouldn’t think that a player with his resume would end up signing a minor league contract this off-season. However, injuries and a down year in 2015 led to his value dropping, leading to O’Flaherty signing late in the off-season on a minor league deal with the Pirates.
O’Flaherty put up an 8.10 ERA and a 4.82 xFIP in 2015 between the Athletics and the Mets. He dealt with some shoulder tendonitis early in the season, and also struggled with mechanics.
“Just kind of got into a mechanical funk. A lot of stuff went wrong,” O’Flaherty said. “I had a little shoulder tendonitis early on. It was kind of quite a few things that just didn’t really stack up for me. So I’m ready to just put it behind me and move on to a new year.”
After returning from Tommy John surgery in 2014, O’Flaherty put up good numbers. But he was also protected, in the sense that he didn’t have to pitch two days in a row. Last year he had a regular schedule, and said he considered it his first full year back, even though he returned in 2014. As for whether the mechanical issues in 2015 stemmed from the Tommy John, O’Flaherty mentioned some of the issues he had with the rehab, highlighting the mobility of the arm.
“You’re focusing on doing the arm exercise and everything like that, but I would definitely say sitting around in a sling, and rehabbing, and doing all that for basically eight months of not really being athletic,” O’Flaherty said of his issues coming back. “I lost a lot of mobility and athleticism. Sometimes you just take for granted that things are always going to be there. So that’s something to work on.”
Clint Hurdle praised O’Flaherty’s history, mentioning that the angle, deception, and stuff were all good when he was at his best. Hurdle described O’Flaherty as a guy who wouldn’t blow it by you with a high-90s fastball, but used deception and movement to get outs. Hurdle also mentioned that the Pirates feel O’Flaherty is healthy now.
“He’s learned a lot through his recovery, how that recovery happened, where he is right now,” Clint Hurdle said of O’Flaherty’s rehab. “He instituted a throwing program over the winter. In a much better place than he was last year at this time. We trust them, and the lessons they’ve learned, the experiences they’ve garnered throughout their career. Now it’s up to us to give the opportunity, but be sure you’ve got to like the guy’s back of the ball card. And if we can help him find a way to get close to that, it would be a welcome addition to the bullpen.”
The Pirates have brought in a lot of left-handers this off-season, and O’Flaherty is one of the guys who looks like he leads the race for the second lefty spot in the bullpen (although it’s not a guarantee that the Pirates will go with two lefties). That open second spot was part of what drove O’Flaherty to join the Pirates.
“They have Tony Watson, who is one of the best lefties in the game. Behind that, it seems like it’s pretty open, so that was really appealing to me,” O’Flaherty said.
The biggest factor for O’Flaherty joining the Pirates was the reputation they’ve gained around the league. He called around to a lot of people, including Jesse Chavez, and placing a call to Brian McCann to talk with Justin Wilson about the work that Ray Searage has done. Overall, O’Flaherty said that everyone he talked with had high praise for the Pirates’ pitching coach.
“That’s a big draw. I’ve seen a lot of guys that kind of hit a little bump in the road and smooth things out here,” O’Flaherty said. “That was definitely a big draw, getting a chance to work with Ray. Actually, this is one of the teams I didn’t know too many guys on, but I called around to a few guys who had come through here and worked with them. And everyone said the same thing. They said he was amazing. There wasn’t one guy who said he’s okay. Everybody said great things.”
McCann and O’Flaherty also discussed Francisco Cervelli, and McCann praised the Pirates’ catcher for being a good catcher and a good guy to throw to. O’Flaherty said that everything he heard about Cervelli was good too.
“I think pitch framing is a good thing, but also just the mentality back there,” O’Flaherty said of Cervelli’s skills. “Nice aggressive mentality. Good leader. Guys that are hungry and want it. A catcher is probably, I think up the middle is the most important position. Catcher, shortstop, center field — defensively you really have to count on those three guys, and having a catcher that leads, you’ll see a lot of those teams outperform expectations. If you have that leader like Cervelli back there that — I know last year might have been his first year catching everyday, and sometimes you see a guy like that and you wonder why it takes so long, and it’s just opportunity.”
O’Flaherty is one of many guys in camp who are coming off a down year, and hoping that the Pirates can turn them around. If the Pirates decide to go with a second left-hander, he would be at the top of the list, along with Cory Luebke, based on previous success. But Luebke missed yesterday with right hamstring discomfort, which could give O’Flaherty an advantage.
If he can get back to where he was before the 2015 season, then he’d be a lock to win the second lefty spot in the bullpen. And even if the Pirates go with the best pitcher approach, his old numbers would be good enough to win that final spot. Either scenario would give the Pirates two very strong left-handers, which would allow them to repeat what they had last year with Tony Watson and Antonio Bastardo.