I was understandably bullish last year when Jerry DiPoto threw down and signed both C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols in a matter of hours. I figured the Angels were odds-on favorites to win the AL West. The offense proved terrific for the Angels, finishing third in the American League in scoring despite playing 106 of their games in the offensive Death Valleys of Seattle, Oakland, and the whole of southern California. The Angels finished first in the AL in OPS+, first in wOBA, second in wRC+, first in Adjusted Batting Runs, third in Total Average, and even first in stolen base percentage.
Alas, that vaunted pitching, headlined by Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Wilson, and joined by Zack Greinke, proved to be their undoing. Now with Haren’s option declined, Greinke out on the open market, and Ervin Santana in Kansas City, the once vaunted Angels staff is in shambles. With the offense likely to decline (Pujols is a year older, and great as he is, Mike Trout probably isn’t going to be worth 10 wins above replacement again), that pitching is going to have to step up if the Angels are going to contend. Thank goodness they can still count on Weaver, the 20-game winner and third-place Cy Young award runner-up, can’t they?
Not so fast. As good as Weaver’s 2012 looked on the surface, there is serious reason to be concerned about his health and effectiveness going forward. His 2012 was nowhere near as dominant as, say, his 2010 was, when he struck out more than a quarter of the batters he faced and issued walks and grounders at essentially the exact same percentage. Instead, since he began throwing his two-seam fastball three years ago, Weaver’s velocity has steadily gone down.
The plate discipline data from Fangraphs is even more worrisome:
|Year||Fastball Velocity||Swing % (outside K-zone)||In Zone Contact %||Swinging Strike %|
In 2010, Weaver finished second in the AL in swings and misses, was in the top five in getting batters to chase pitches outside of the zone, and had the lowest in-zone contact rate in the majors. Now he’s tied for 47th in getting batters to chase, 45th in-in zone contact, and tied for 46th in getting batters to whiff. Batters just aren’t swinging through his pitches anymore and are offering at fewer and fewer outside of the strike zone at the same time that he’s throwing more pitches there. He survived 2012 for two reasons: the tremendous defense behind him and a freakishly low BABIP (.241, tied with Ervin Santana for the lowest in the game). In short, he’s not fooling anybody.
It is true that part of this reflects a change in Weaver’s approach designed to help the Angels’ ace to pitch deeper into games and face more hitters. Still, after a year in which he was literally too exhausted to pitch in September and had himself removed from games down the stretch with a shoulder inflammation, a reasonable person would worry that the diminished velocity and pitch effectiveness as well as the increased fatigue are signs of a larger problem, one that could ultimately compromise one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball from 2009-2011 (Weaver started just two fewer games than MLB leaders Holliday and Dan Haren in that span.)
It’s appropriate, then, that one of the most comparable pitchers to Weaver (as per Baseball-Reference) is Brandon Webb, the former Diamondbacks ace and 2006 Cy Young award winner. Webb threw just five fewer innings than Weaver through the age of 29, developing shoulder trouble immediately after winning 22 games in 2008. Since then, Webb has had two shoulder surgeries and thrown exactly four innings in the Major Leagues and 12 in the minors. He has shown distressingly low velocity and an inability to stay healthy. In 2011, he posted a 9.75 ERA at Double-A in the Rangers system and was out of baseball this year. Somewhat ominously, Weaver actually has thrown more than 1500 more pitches in the majors than Webb ever did.
This obviously doesn’t mean that Weaver will disappear like Webb, never to be seen again. Even so, it’s presumptuous to think that the Angels would have a pair of aces if they just re-sign Greinke. Even if Weaver can stay healthy going forward, his velocity is probably not coming back, and pitchers can only defy the wrath of BABIP for so long before they succumb. Going into 2013, everything about Jered Weaver should make us suspicious, because even in the unlikely event that he stays healthy, his continually-diminishing velocity and inability to miss bats is bound to catch up with him sooner rather than later.