Seven or eight years ago, in what would be the final game of my not-so-illustrious junior college baseball career, I faced a very sloooow pitcher. Even by the standards of the small town community college circuit, this dude, a big left hander, was abnormally slow.
I’d never hit an outside-the-park home run, believe it or not, although I’d come close two times that year, both against soft-tossing lefties. Watching his 70-something mile an hour heaters from the on-deck circle, I was salivating. With a short porch in left field, I’d made up my mind: I was going to try to hit a home run, and I was just about sure I was going to do it.
In three at-bats against the guy, I barely hit the ball out of the infield, grounding out twice to the left side and flying weakly into right field. He was, somehow, too slow, his otherwise juicy pitches turned effective because they traveled so far below the speed of the ones I’d grown familiar with. (Also, I wasn’t a very good hitter.)
Lesson No. 1: Never try to hit a home run. Lesson No. 2: Never underestimate the challenge of a slow fastball.
If Jered Weaver is to have success in an age of major-league flame throwers, perhaps he must follow a similar strategy as the unnamed lefty I faced nearly a decade ago.
I know what you’re thinking: he already does! Sure, Weaver’s fastball speed over the last couple of seasons has dropped to a level that’s nearly 10 mph slower than the average fastball, but when he gets it up into the 85 or 86 range, his fastball starts to enter the realm of actual, big-league heat (or, at least, a changeup). Take this one he threw to Yasiel Puig, which Brooks Baseball pegged at 84.4 mph:
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) April 6, 2017
There are a lot of problems with that pitch: it’s slow, it’s flat, and it’s poorly located, down the middle and up. But it still looks something like a major-league fastball. Even though Puig is out in front, he’s not so throw by the pitch to pull it foul or even miss it completely. Instead, he crushes a no-doubt, two-run homer.
One of the things discussed in yesterday’s broadcast, by Bob Scanlan and Mark Grant, is how often times the league’s best pitchers are fly ball guys, just like Weaver. The problem there, which Grant later brought up, is that they’re fly ball pitchers because they can work up in the zone, often with 95-plus mph stuff, where they get a bunch of strikeouts. Think Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander or Yu Darvish. Weaver had plenty of success as that kind of pitcher once, when he could get by with fastball readings that would at least catch a police officer’s attention. Now, three of four years later, he’s seemingly still trying to throw the high cheese, only it’s coming in at 84 or 85. And it’s not working.
My proposal for Weaver, if there’s a path back to big-league success for him, is to stop trying to throw the ball hard. It appears that when he overthrows his four-seam fastball, it straightens out and becomes, basically, a normal pitcher’s changeup (without the movement). Look at how often he threw it last year (top image) and how often hitters swung and missed (bottom image).
On high fastballs (all the ones in the top two rows of boxes), Weaver got just 14 whiffs on 135 swings (10.3 percent). For comparison, Rich Hill and his 90 mph fastball got whiffs on 29 percent of similar pitches (more on Hill in a second). Weaver has trouble working anywhere up in the strike zone with his fastball because it’s just not fast enough to get by hitters.
He has had some positive results with his changeup, however, which is interesting since it’s just so darned slow, traversing the troposphere at like 75 mph. Given some of the success Weaver’s had with slower pitches, I’d propose that he simply threw more of them; whether in the form of slower two-seamers or changeups or breaking balls. Even the four-seamer might still work, if it came in slow enough. A flat 84 isn’t go to fool anyone, but maybe one at 80 with a lot of spin would. Perhaps Weaver’s best chance to rebound is to follow a similar strategy to Hill, whose heavy curve usage is well-documented; he’s gone to the pitch nearly 50 percent of the time since 2016, and he’s transformed into one of the game’s best pitchers with just two primary offerings. .
It’s possible—likely, even—that Weaver just can’t succeed at this level; not everyone is a Rich Hill turnaround candidate. The other pitchers who have done well at this speed in the modern era—the Jamie Moyers, Tom Glavines, and Mark Buehrles—were crafty lefties who gradually got craftier and craftier as age robbed them of velocity. Weaver hasn’t been able to adjust, the command not good enough to make up for the speed loss. He’s still pitching like a guy with a big fastball, craftiness be damned.
If Weaver’s going to succeed again, his best bet might simply be to fully embrace his limitations. If he’s able to work well below the zone of a big-league hitter’s expectations for pitch speed, he might still have an outside shot to get some guys out.