Believe in Ryan Flaherty

With Brian Roberts agreeing to a contract with the New York Yankees before the holidays, what was already becoming apparent is now obvious – Ryan Flaherty is likely the Orioles starting second baseman in 2014.

And no, that is not a bad thing.

Oriole fans have had an up-close view of Ryan’s struggles during his first two seasons in the majors.  He arrived in Baltimore in 2012 as a not-quite-ready for primetime Rule 5 draft pick.  As most players in that situation tend to do, Flaherty struggled in making the big leap from AAA to the American League.  In 2013, it counted as somewhat of a surprise when he made the team out of Spring Training and it was even more unexpected when he was thrust into an everyday role after Roberts suffered an injury during the opening series in Tampa.  While most were willing to give Flaherty the benefit of the doubt for his Rule 5 year struggles, his ugly April and May performance last season (15 hits in 112 plate appearances) was a tougher pill to swallow. 

The more a player struggles at the major league level, the more difficult it often becomes to imagine him having success at the major league level.  Those struggles are the only tangible observations most of us have to go off of and it taints our perception.  Every player develops differently, however, and there are legitimate signs pointing to the notion that Flaherty is ready to become a solid major league second baseman starting next season, despite his struggles to this point.

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Almost all of Ryan’s offensive numbers trended the right way from the 2012 season to the 2013 season.  He struck out significantly less in 2013 moving from a 25.8% SO rate in to a 22.9% rate in 2013.  In the minors, Flaherty displayed slightly above average patience, walking in 9.1% of his total plate appearances.  That discipline was virtually non-existent in 2012 (3.6% BB%) but began to show itself in 2013 with a 7.0% walk rate.  Flaherty saw 3.84 pitches per plate appearance last season, up from 3.66 the year before.  That made him just about league average in that category and was the 4th best total of any Orioles with 250+ plate appearances, trailing only Roberts, Chris Davis, and Matt Wieters.

Due to those improvements, Ryan put himself in a far better position to succeed each time at the plate.  Both his power numbers (.023 increase in ISO) and on-base numbers (.035 OBP bump from 2012 to 2013) were much improved in 2013.

Not only did his performance in 2013 improve over 2012, but Flaherty showed significant improvement within the 2013 season as well.

As previously mentioned, Ryan had a tough go of it last April and May.  He failed to make consistent hard contact during those months, which resulted in a .150 batting average and strike outs in 25% of his at bats.  Perhaps the lone bright spot was a solid – if unspectacular – 8.0% walk rate in those months.  In June, things seemed to click for the (then) 26-year old.  Flaherty hit .297 that month while striking out only 19.3% of the time.  When Flaherty makes contact, he usually makes hard contact which was certainly the case in June with four homeruns and 2 doubles in 78 plate appearances.  The return of Roberts in July cut drastically into his playing time but Flaherty was still solid in August and September when given the chance to play.  He hit .258, walked at a 10% clip, and displayed tremendous power (4 homeruns and 5 doubles in 71 plate appearances) during the final two months of the regular season.  After a slow start in his first 112 PA’s of the season, Ryan was very good in the final 159 plate appearances which spanned the final four months of the season.

Given his swing, Flaherty has never been much of a contact hitter and likely never will be.  That swing also provides much of his power so there is a tradeoff.  The key to Flaherty’s success – demonstrated by his improvements in 2013 and from the 1st half to the 2nd half of the season – is to put himself in a position to drive the ball as often as possible.  That means seeing more pitches, taking walks when he gets them, and not chasing pitches outside of the strike zone.  Ryan’s swing percentage on balls outside of the strike zone dropped from 41.2% in 2012 to 34.2% in 2013.  The power is not an issue but rather the barrier is being able to put that power into play more often.  Flaherty made several positive steps in that direction during 2013.

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Defensively, Flaherty already looks like an everyday second baseman.  He has an overlooked arm that would play at shortstop or even third base and is a big plus in turning double plays from second.  His range is probably what has surprised me the most.  Ryan is a lanky – perhaps awkward looking – 6’3 but gets to balls on the right side of the infield very well going both to his left and right.  UZR agrees with that assessment of Flaherty’s range – the metric rates him as a well above average defender at second during his Major League career.  Given the substantial and noticeable improvements he has made at 2B in a short amount of time, it is far from inconceivable that Flaherty could end up as a very valuable defensive second baseman.

The million dollar question – at least for 2014 – is if Ryan Flaherty can provide much needed production for the Orioles at 2B, a position they have struggled to get any sort of value from the past several years.

Flaherty’s final 2013 line of .224/.293/.390, 10 HR line from 2013 with above-average defense resulted in 1.0 rWAR in 2013.  To be perfectly honest, a repeat of his 2013 season – but with regular playing time – would constitute a valuable season.  I am not so sure his 2013 performance was his floor, but I am not quite sure we should look at it has a “base” case scenario for 2013 either.  Given how bad Flaherty performed at the plate in April and May and how his final numbers were not necessarily helped by one torrid streak at the plate, I think his mid-case performance level for 2013 is likely more in the .240/.310/.410 range.  One does not have to squint too hard to see Ryan reach that level next season which coupled with good defense and consistent at bats versus right-handed pitching, would make him a 2.0+ rWAR player in all likelihood.

There is no standard profile for a player that breaks through as a major league regular in his upper 20’s.  However, Flaherty does carry many characteristics that I would argue bode positively for him being such a player.  The biggest of those characteristics is that in many ways, his development has been stunted for the better part of two seasons.  He was thrust to the Major Leagues a bit earlier than ideal as a result of being a rule 5 pick.  He would have certainly benefited from at least a half a season in AAA in 2012 after only 49 games at that level in 2011.  From 2012 to 2013, he received only 529 plate appearances at any level which is less than a full season’s worth for an everyday player.  Getting to the majors earlier than he should have and the two years of inconsistent playing time that followed have no doubt delayed his development.  It is probably more fair and accurate to view Flaherty as being one-year removed from being a solid minor league player rather than two years removed given the circumstances.  A lot of players struggle in their first major league season and in Flaherty’s case, he has shown relatively consistent and significant improvement as time as gone on.  He might turn 28 next July but there is clearly a big difference between a 28 year old player like Flaherty who has yet to break through and a 28 year old player who has accumulated 1,800 major league plate appearances who has yet to break through.

The Orioles are not taking a blind leap of faith in penciling Flaherty’s name in at second base.  They are banking on Flaherty’s struggles being at least partially attributable to his inconsistent playing time the past two seasons.  They are banking on the legitimate improvement he displayed last season continuing.  They see the potential for his solid minor league performance to more full translate to the big leagues.  They see a player who is already capable of being an asset defensively.  Those are not fanciful wishes – they are reasonable expectations built off of legitimate evidence.

How Flaherty actually performs in 2014 if given the everyday second base job remains to be seen, but there is reason enough for me to believe that he will provide league average or better value if given the chance.