Throwing hard has never been part of Jered Weaver’s success. His fastball topped out in the low 90s when he debuted with the Angels as a 23-year-old in 2006, and from 2007-2011 he consistently averaged 90. During that five-year stretch Weaver logged more than 1,000 innings with a 3.40 ERA, held opponents to a .240 batting average and .678 OPS, and finished runner-up for a Cy Young award. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball and did a lot of things very well—deception, command, movement—but he never threw hard.
And then his fastball started shedding velocity. Initially it didn’t seem like a big deal because most pitchers threw harder at 23 than they do at 28 and, really, who cares about dropping from 90.1 mph to 88.7 mph when Weaver was also winning 20 games with a 2.81 ERA and finishing third in the Cy Young balloting? That was 2012. Then his velocity kept vanishing and his results began deteriorating as well. Weaver was still having some success, but beginning with 2011 his average fastball basically lost 1-2 mph each year and his secondary numbers got progressively worse.
- 2011: 90.1 mph
- 2012: 88.7 mph
- 2013: 87.3 mph
- 2014: 87.5 mph
- 2015: 84.3 mph
- 2016: 83.7 mph
- 2011: 3.24 FIP
- 2012: 3.70 FIP
- 2013: 3.85 FIP
- 2014: 4.22 FIP
- 2015: 4.78 FIP
- 2016: 5.61 FIP
In the span of six seasons, Weaver went from being an in-his-prime ace to pitching like someone who got into a car and started driving without realizing the parking brake was still on. Weaver is still only 33 years old, but since the start of 2015 his 5.10 FIP ranks third-worst among pitchers with 200-plus innings, and this season his 5.61 FIP is dead last among pitchers with 75-plus innings. For the past two years Weaver has been throwing batting-practice fastballs mixed with various off-speed slop in an effort to wriggle his way through lineups for five or six innings before giving gradually less impassioned and more frustrated quotes to reporters about how the lack of velocity isn’t a big deal.
It’s a big deal. Plenty of pitchers have thrived throwing in the low 90s, and some of them have even continued to do so throwing in the high 80s, but nearly all of them fall into the “crafty lefty” category. Weaver is right-handed. For a while he looked like the one-man pilot program for a “crafty righty” category, but there’s “crafty” and then there’s just “throwing batting practice.” He’s reached the latter stage, crashing through the 85 mph floor on the way down to a dark, sad place where few righties ever reside. Here’s a list of every right-handed, non-knuckleballer starter since 2007 to average below 85 mph with the fastball in a season:
- 83.7 mph – Jered Weaver, 2016
- 84.3 mph – Jered Weaver, 2015
- 84.3 mph – Livan Hernandez, 2011
- 84.5 mph – Livan Hernandez, 2010
- 84.7 mph – Livan Hernandez, 2008
- 84.9 mph – Livan Hernandez, 2007
Even within that exclusive soft-tossing company—Weaver and Livan Hernandez's late-30s death rattle—the Angels' erstwhile ace has still managed to distinguish himself by falling below 84 mph. He’s outslopping Livan Hernandez, which is like outrunning Usain Bolt, outshooting Steph Curry, or outout-making Ryan Howard. Weaver has started 14 games this season and his fastball hasn’t averaged higher than 85.0 mph in any of them. In his most recent start, Sunday against the A’s, his fastball averaged 84.2 mph and Weaver … threw a three-hit shutout.
[Record scratch sound effect.]
Now, the A’s are tied for the lowest-scoring lineup in the league and the group that Weaver shut down Sunday featured just two hitters—cleanup man Danny Valencia and part-timer Jake Smolinski—with an OPS above .715. Not exactly a potent attack, but Weaver needed only 95 pitches to record 27 outs—also known as a “Maddux”—and faced just two batters over the minimum while allowing zero extra-base hits. He was damn near masterful, or at least as close to masterful as you can get generating a grand total of one strikeout in nine innings. A’s shortstop Marcus Semien provided Weaver’s lone whiff by swinging through a 77 mph, 1-2 slider after fouling off an 85-mph fastball on the previous pitch.
It was just one of three swinging strikes for Weaver, who told reporters afterward: “I just wanted to go out there and pitch to contact. They put the bat on the ball, but luckily they were at people. … I know I'm not a guy anymore who is going to go out there and strike people out.” Postgame quotes from the A’s were similarly telling. Catcher and third-place hitter Stephen Vogt, who went 0-for-2 with a walk, called the game “frustrating” because “every pitch looks like you can hammer it and that's just not the case.” A’s manager Bob Melvin gave “some credit to the way [Weaver] pitched, but I thought our at-bats were consistently disappointing.”
While those Vogt and Melvin quotes may sound like sour grapes to some, they had every right to be frustrated and maybe even a little confused. Not only did Weaver come into the game with a 5.71 ERA this season and a 6.48 ERA with 15 home runs allowed in his past 10 starts, he’s just the eighth right-handed pitcher in the past 20 seasons to throw a shutout on fewer than 100 pitches without recording multiple strikeouts. Prior to Weaver against Oakland on Sunday it had happened just once since 2007, when Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello completed a 95-pitch, four-hit shutout on July 1, 2014 … against Melvin, Vogt, and those same Oakland A’s.
Porcello actually outdid even Weaver that day, recording zero strikeouts and only two swinging strikes, yet Melvin gave Porcello quite a bit more credit for his pitch-to-contact shutout of the A’s, saying afterward: “Our guys were swinging at strikes, but everything was moving. He's got a good sinker and a good changeup, and now he's mixing in a good breaking ball to keep you off balance. That's just a very well-pitched game by him." Two key distinctions between the pitchers lend credence to Melvin’s differing postgame quotes: Porcello averaged 93 mph with his fastball and induced 18 groundball outs. Weaver averaged 84 mph with his fastball and induced 20 flyball outs.
Weaver remains in the Angels’ rotation because they lack other appealing options and because he’s being paid $20 million in the final season of a five-year, $85 million contract that was viewed as a relative bargain at the time. Weaver signed on August 21, 2011—right before his velocity started permanently deserting him—and the next day in the Los Angeles Times the overwhelming focus was on the surprising “hometown discount” given to the Angels by a Scott Boras client and how much money he potentially left on the table. “How much more money do you need,” Weaver said at the time, adding: “I've never played this game for money … I could have gotten more, whatever, who cares? I'm here, and that's all I care about.”
Back then not many people could have envisioned a scenario in which Weaver was washed up well before the end of that “bargain” $85 million extension, but here we are. He’s struggled so much since the beginning of last season and his velocity has fallen into such uncharted territory that it seems plausible he could go from making $20 million this year to possibly being without any major-league contract offers next year. There’s still plenty of time for Weaver to get back on track, and while there’s been little indication he’s capable of doing so there is some promising news: His next start is Friday night against the Oakland A’s.
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