LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – When the Braves signed left-hander Eric O’Flaherty to a minor league contract during the Winter Meetings in December, the general reaction was, why?
Why re-sign a 31-year-old reliever who had a 6.91 ERA in 39 appearances for the Braves before going on the disabled list in August and having another procedure on his elbow, which had never been the same since Tommy John surgery in 2013?
Perhaps the Braves knew something about the surgery, or just about O’Flaherty, recalling that he was among baseball’s top relievers for Atlanta in 2009-2012, with an uncommonly high pain tolerance and often-praised work ethic.
Whatever they knew, he's making the re-signing look smart. O’Flaherty was told Tuesday he made the Braves’ opening-day roster, after coming to spring training as a non-roster invitee and posting a 1.69 ERA and .211 opponents’ batting average in a team-high 10 Grapefruit League appearances before Tuesday, when he gave up the winning run in the ninth inning on a hit, walk and balk against the Orioles.
"O’s throwing the ball really well," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "That (Tuesday) was probably his worst out of the spring, but he’s been throwing good.... It’s nice to see him pitching pain-free and healthy."
It says something for how good and consistent he's been that Tuesday's outing was, indeed, the worst of the spring for O'Flaherty, who has 16 strikeouts and four walks in 11 2/3 innings.
“You’ve definitely got to force your way on (the roster) in those situations,” O’Flaherty said of making the team as a non-roster invitee. “But that’s just Step 1. It’s got to transfer to the season now. That’s the goal -- you come here, hopefully get some momentum, throw strikes and get guys out and look good, and then it’s got to transfer to the season. I’m looking forward to the way I’ve been pitching (this spring), just trying to get it to transfer over and keep the same game plan and keep it going.”
The fact that he would pitch so well again – not to mention six months after surgery – was a big surprise to many who saw O’Flaherty in 2016, when he had an 8.24 ERA in his last 23 appearances. Some assumed his career was over.
But O’Flaherty knew what was holding him back. Ulnar neuritis (nerve irritation near the elbow) was preventing him from fully extending on pitches without pain and tingling in his fingers. A procedure described to him by doctors sounded as if it might work. He believed that if he could get full extension again, he would be able to pitch effectively.
He was, after all, just 31, and with a relatively modest 398 major league innings logged in his career.
O’Flaherty had the surgery and the results, he said, were almost immediately noticeable.
“Even playing catch the last two seasons was frustrating on a daily basis, just not being able to do what I wanted to with the ball,” he said. “And it wasn’t necessarily a velocity thing, it was more extension and control. One big thing I’ve been able to do this spring is just get back to the glove side of the plate with the four-seamer (fastball), and my slider has been night-and-day better than it was in the past. The past couple of seasons I was just throwing sinkers away and hoping for the best, and this season I can pitch. It’s just fun again. There’s so much less anxiety when you have control of the ball.”
And when you have a few pitches in the arsenal of just one.
“I could tell I had more range of motion,” O’Flaherty said. “Really, any time I tried to go glove side with the four-seamer it would cut out of the zone, and the same thing with the slider – I would yank it. But the sinker, I didn’t have to get complete extension. I could almost just push it and get my body out of the way and keep it on the arm side of the plate. It’s been a good sinker the whole time, but when it’s only one pitch and they only have to look in one spot, they can just kind of let everything else go. You’ve just kind of got to hope for the best, and it wasn’t working.
"So it’s been really good just to get back to a full mix of pitches and given them two or three other pitches to think about, different looks, and it definitely played out there (this spring). I’m excited to throw it in the season, too.”
He said he’s had no pain while throwing since the surgery. "I mean, I felt like I could have played catch a week after that surgery," he said. "Because it was nothing structural, it was basically just a cut and then cleaning up the nerve and taking pressure off that nerve.”
As he described the procedure, O’Flaherty displayed the Tommy John surgery scar about five inches long on the inside of his elbow, and pointed to the upper half, where the surgeon cut on top of the scar to expose the damaged nerve.
“Down here they didn’t touch,” he said, pointing to the lower half of the scar. “Up here they just kind of scraped the nerve off and got all the scar tissue off of it. The way they described it to me was kind of like if you have a hose with a little kink in it, the strength isn’t going to be there. And for me, getting all the way out there (extended) I’d feel a little tingling in my fingers. So, subconsciously I just kind of stayed right here (short of full extension)….
“It was the easiest surgery. I would have done it two years ago if I had known it was going to be that simple. But it’s hard to wrap your mind around another operation after you work your way through that year of Tommy John (rehab)."
O’Flaherty, a groundball specialist who always relied on location and sink more than velocity, was exceptional in his first stint with the Braves, posting a 1.95 ERA in 276 appearances over four seasons through 2012. He had a 1.31 ERA in 131 innings over the last two seasons of that period, and in 2011 he had a microscopic 0.98 ERA in 78 appearances.
He had TJ surgery early in the 2013 season and went to Oakland as a free agent before 2014, making 46 appearances for the Athletics over parts of two seasons before he was traded to the Mets during the 2015 season. O’Flaherty had a 13.50 ERA in 16 games for the Mets and was with the Pirates in spring training 2016 when the Braves, desperate for left-handed help in their bullpen, got him in a minor late-spring trade.
All three times he has come to the Braves – as a waiver claim from Seattle after the 2008 season, a trade in 2016 spring training and as a minor league free agent – there have been low expectations for O’Flaherty. Don’t think he doesn’t know.
“I mean, in 2008, no one was too excited when I came over here, I can tell you that,” said O’Flaherty, who’d posted a 20.25 ERA in seven appearances for the Mariners in 2008. “I’d had some back trouble and a 20-something ERA. I don’t even know what the stats were, they were terrible. The same thing. And that’s the fun thing about baseball: It’s a complicated sport where one little kink, one little adjustment can turn you from being terrible to really good again.
“And when you see guys make these adjustments all year long – it’s a long season for that fact, because you’re always trying to tinker and make those adjustments. But most of us...there’s the Chipper Jones and guys who just have the bulletproof deliveries and swings, and the rest of us are battling all year long to find those little adjustments and clicks that get you right back on track.
“So, yeah, it’s pretty similar to where I feel like myself again, and it’s exciting.”