Working With Searage and Cervelli Were Big Draws For Eric O’Flaherty

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.

  • It’s good to see that the feedback O’Flaherty got seemed focused on Searage instead of on Benedict no longer being with the Pirates. I’m not downplaying Benedict’s role at all, but just noting that the Pirates remain an attractive destination for pitchers to reclaim their past success.

    • Successful systems like that are always about more than just one or two individuals.

    • I think the more encouraging thing was what Luebke said last week. He talked with Clayton Richard, who worked with Benedict a lot last year. And even with Benedict gone, Richard had a lot of praise for the coaches in the system.

      • With reference to the out-clause discussion below, I hope we don’t end up fixing him and letting him walk to another major league opportunity. I’ve heard the “goodwill” and future recruiting arguments from the Clayton Richards rehab experience. Howver, if he can help us win he should be on the major league roster…not a gift to a competitor.

        • True, but holding onto a guy who isnt ML ready at that time just to hold onto him also isnt worthwhile. Opt out clause gives the player a chance to find other work if he refuses to deal with AAA for half a season, but from a team standpoint you arent going to throw him onto the roster if you dont think he’s ready.

          If he isnt on the ML roster prior to the opt out date, it could mean he’s not all that fixed. Which doesnt stop him from continuing to work on what they were telling him.

      • Yes, I recall thinking at the time that that was a good sign, and also hoping that Luebke and Richard realized that Benedict was gone.

        Your reporting makes it clear that it’s a system-wide philosophy.

  • I wonder what the Pirates pay Ray Searage? And I wonder if he’s using this run of success to negotiate significant pay increases?

    He’s kind of hit that point like some college football offensive and defensive coordinators do–where they make substantially more than their peers and as much as head coaches at smaller schools.

  • It appears from my untrained eye the Pirates are banking their fortunes on bullpen performance this season. I realize it was a key to them winning 98 games last year, but if possible, it’s even more important this season.

    • Yep- because the bullpen can surely lead a comeback when we are down 5-2 in the 5th inning of more than half of the starts locke and vogelsong make- and no, that wasn’t statistical, it was hyperbole.

      • The trick is gonna be to pull him before he gives up 5 runs, be it the 5th or the 2nd.

        • Along with the bullpen being able to hold a 3 run deficit to 3 runs to allow the offense a chance to add on. Quality long relief guys arent purely about showing up before its a 2-3 run deficit, but also coming in and holding a game where it is to allow an offense to mount a comeback.

        • never going to happen. We don’t suddenly have a bullpen 13 players deep. We will have the same amount of bullpen pitchers, whom can pitch the same amount of days in a row, as we did last year. We can’t have a postseason hook on any of our starting 5 and expect to have a functional bullpen in the second half.

          • Well first of all they only have to do this until JT and TG get called up which is just a few months. But I see the strategy as risky but it can work. In the bullpen we can carry Nicasio and Lobstien who are both capable of going 2-4 innings on the days which Volgesong and Locke mess up badly which is gonna be at least every other start for both of them and we can hopefully stay in those games. While I’m not all for this at all, I believe that this strategy can keep us on the hunt for the first part of the season.

            • We can’t have both of them on the team, there just isn’t room. If you carry two long relievers then that is two dead spots in the bullpen that you can’t use in other situations. Having 1 guy dedicated to long relief is hard enough since he may only be used 2 games in 20- having two is just completely inefficient. You will eventually have to use him in shorter roles to get value for him, then run the risk of not being able to use him when he is needed for the expressed purpose of long relief. If you do the math, it just doesn’t work unless you go with a 6 man rotation using 5 rotation spots, rotating the 6th into a long relief role. It’s the only way it can work that I can see.

      • I do seem to remember a whole lot of comeback wins last year due to clutch late inning hitting and a strong bullpen to hold the opponent from responding.

        Furthermore, just because you “know” Locke and Vogelsong are going to suck in more than half their starts, doesn’t mean they will.

        • Kliesen- no one “knows” they are going to suck in more than half of their starts, but based on their history, there is a better chance they will suck than they won’t. Noone has a crystal ball, but again- these guys aren’t Kang coming from Korea having never seen a MLB pitch- these are known commodities.

        • I would challenge your memory- Have many games were we behind by more than 2 runs in the 5th inning did we come back to win? I don’t care about the ones where we fell behind in the 7th or 8th, because the soft middle relievers wouldn’t have been forced to carry us in those. I’m just saying- middle relievers are middle relievers typically because they failed at being a starter. Some because they aren’t good after a time through the lineup, but others whom just aren’t good period due to lack of deception, lack of command, lack of control. All of our best relievers will only be in the game when we are ahead or tied. You know it, I know it, and Hurdle knows it.

  • O’Flaherty was my favorite pitcher signing of the off season, even over Feliz and Nicasio.

  • Was it mentioned in the articles when they were signed what their out-clauses were, if any? (Speaking just about Luebke and O’Flaherty) I’d imagine if O’Flaherty is truly back…he’s a lock for the bullpen.

    • We usually don’t hear those ahead of time and a lot of players don’t know themselves when they’re asked. They will know that they have one, but don’t know the details, usually saying their agent took care of that, but they don’t intend to leave. Most vets have one though and they range from making the team out of ST, to getting to the big leagues by May 1st to getting there by June 1st

      • a lot of players don’t know themselves when they ask.

        Well that sure is a scary thought. I know EYE would want to know what kind of contract I have.

        • They let their agents worry about the details.

        • Is it really scary? I think if they were even mildly concerned, they would ask. It’s not like it’s a secret, they are probably just more focused on stuff like baseball(for example)

          • I’m with Foo here- as a player I’d want to make sure I know my options so I can plan a little something called “life” which does trump baseball in some situations….not many, but some. I mean, I wouldn’t put that in the hands of my agent, I’d tell the agent, “this is what I want if I’m dealing with a minor league sign”

            • They definitely do that. But they don’t memorize the contract details and all of the opt out dates after they’ve signed. That’s the job of the agent.

              • I guess that’s a fair point. It’s kinda like not knowing what you are being paid though- to me at least.

                • I’m sure he knows what he’s getting paid. This would be more along the lines of not knowing the details of a specific benefit in your benefits package, and having to ask your HR rep for the details. Except with the twist that your HR rep works for you, and keeps track of every benefit you have, so that you don’t miss any of them.

                  • Well an out clause is pretty similar in importance to- vacation time.

                    • Not really, since vacation time doesn’t allow you to get out of a contract.

                      Here is the best analogy I could come up with, relating to my job:

                      The MLB draft is in June. If you asked me, I couldn’t tell you the day. I know it’s on a Thursday, and I know it’s the second week. But I’d have to look at a calendar or Google it. As we get closer to the draft, it will become more important for me to know the exact date. For now, it doesn’t matter as much as other things.

                      Players with opt out dates are in the same situation. They know they’ve got one, but they usually don’t know the date. When it gets close to the date, they know the deadline.

                      Last year, Clayton Richard didn’t know his opt out details this time of year. When it came close to the date, he knew when it would be, and knew he had a decision to make. But there was no reason for him to memorize the exact date in February.

                      One thing that hasn’t been mentioned much here is that some players might just be faking ignorance by saying they don’t know, simply because they don’t want to talk about or think about not making the team. They’re in the mindset that the opt out isn’t even an issue.

            • Well, the players obviously(for the most part) disagree with you guys. What can I tell you. I would want to know too, but that’s not the general consensus. Most are just looking for an opportunity and aren’t focusing on failure. I wouldn’t classify it as “scary” that they are focused on making the team. I actually think it says more about them as a player that they aren’t worried about the contract details. I’m sure they can tell you the salary part of it with no hesitation.

              • I was just sharing my opinion here and agreeing with Foo, wasn’t asking for an explanation, but I appreciate it nevertheless. It isn’t always in the player’s locker so to speak, whether they make the team or not, hence i’d like to focus on variables. Then again I graduated from college with a business degree, most of these kids don’t have much education

          • We are not only talking about pitchers (mandatory watching of Bull Durham), we are talking about left handed pitchers. Seriously though, he does not care what the language in the contract is because if he does not turn it around, it will all be worthless anyway.

            • Most players don’t know and the answer is either just “I don’t know, but I’m focused on making the team so it doesn’t matter” or they might say “I’ll get back to you” and then you find out a few days in advance of the deadline. It’s not something most players worry about and why should you, because an opt out clause is basically planning for failure. That’s why they let their agents worry about that part and they control what they can control on the field. It’s not like it’s going to pass without them knowing and then they are stuck there. If players wanted to worry about the agent side of things too, they would be their own agents.

              The point of the original answer is that if you ask the players, there is a significantly high chance you won’t get the answer. Doesn’t mean we won’t ask when the time gets near, just don’t expect to hear stuff like that well in advance.