O'Flaherty sees chance for revival in Pirates bullpen
March 5, 2016 12:00 AM
From 2009 to 2013, Eric O’Flaherty had a 1.99 ERA in 249 1/3 innings.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. — The endorsements weren’t the main thing that persuaded Eric O’Flaherty to sign with the Pirates, but they didn’t hurt.
O’Flaherty texted his former teammate in Oakland, Jesse Chavez, who broke into the majors in Pittsburgh in 2008. He asked Brian McCann, whom he played with in Atlanta, to check with Justin Wilson, who McCann caught while with the New York Yankees. But when asked “Why the Pirates,” O’Flaherty pointed to the standings.
“First of all, they’re good,” O’Flaherty said. “What was it, 98 wins last year?”
Pirates Spring Training Report from Bradenton
Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talks about pitcher Francisco Liriano start this afternoon against the Twins. (Video by Peter Diana 3/4/2016)
O’Flaherty joined the Pirates in February on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. For five years, he was one of the best left-handed relievers in the game. But rehabilitation from 2013 Tommy John ligament replacement surgery created bad habits and led to a poor 2015 season.
So O’Flaherty, 31, went where pitchers who struggle often go to get back on track. Not just because Chavez and Wilson had positive reviews and not just because the team is good, but because he sees an opportunity in the Pirates bullpen.
“Of course,” he said. “That’s why I signed here.”
Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Arquimedes Caminero, Jared Hughes and Neftali Feliz will have spots in the 2016 bullpen. Although the Pirates are stretching out Juan Nicasio in case they need another starter, he likely will pitch in long relief. That leaves one open spot, and Watson as the only left-hander.
“Clint [Hurdle] told me they’re not going to carry a second lefty just for the sake of it,” O’Flaherty said. “You’ve got to be able to get everybody out. I don’t really want to be a lefty specialist guy anyway.”
He never had trouble getting righties out during his stretch of dominance with the Braves, who claimed him off waivers from the Seattle Mariners in 2008. From 2009-13, O’Flaherty had a 1.99 ERA in 249⅓ innings. That included a 2011 campaign where he posted a 0.98 ERA in 78 games.
“I just went through a phase where I didn’t think about anything but competing,” he said. “My mechanics were locked in, I’d been healthy for a long time. It was just easy back then.”
Somehow, O’Flaherty did all this despite pitching through a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow since 2005. The elbow didn’t bother him again until midway through 2012, and an MRI revealed the slight tear. But in the second half of 2012, 28 games from July 15 to Oct. 3, O’Flaherty didn’t allow an earned run.
“It was like, if you’re still getting people out, you’re not going to mess with it,” he said. “In 2013, I was pitching well, too, but it just got to the point, pain-wise, where I wasn’t enjoying baseball anymore. So, I decided to have the surgery.”
Coming back from surgery, O’Flaherty developed at least two mechanical flaws. He started “flying open,” or rotating his right shoulder early to generate velocity. He also lost deception, showing the ball to the hitters too soon.
“You can throw 92 [mph] and hide the ball and it plays up, or you can throw 92 and show the ball for 25 seconds, like I was last year, and it plays down,” he said.
His numbers when he returned from the surgery in 2014 were good — a 2.25 ERA in 21 games for the Athletics. But he knew something was wrong.
“I wasn’t making the pitches I normally make,” he said. “You can kind of weasel your way through without your ‘A’ game for short periods of time. Over a full season, it’s going to catch up to you.”
In 2015, it did. He had an 8.10 ERA for the A’s and New York Mets in a season that included a month on the disabled list because of a strained shoulder. Oakland designated O’Flaherty for assignment after the trade deadline before sending him to the Mets. O’Flaherty allowed 13 runs and 18 hits in 8⅔ innings for the Mets, who left him off all of their playoff rosters.
“In 2016, we believe he’ll be able to get back not only into quality of use, but quality of stuff,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “Our guys saw the breaking ball, they saw the fastball command, the deception.”
O’Flaherty’s first spring outing went poorly. He allowed five runs, one earned, and three hits in one inning Wednesday against Detroit, an inning that included a walk, a hit batsman and a home run. Hurdle was not concerned. It was March 2.
O’Flaherty has enough service time that the Pirates must either put him on the active roster or release him five days before opening day to avoid paying him a $100,000 retention bonus. He hopes that won’t come into play, and that he can make — and contribute to — a winning team.
“Hang around a while, you definitely want to be on winners because it’s just a good time,” he said. “It has an effect on your performance, too, I think.”
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG.
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