Watching Jered Weaver, Baseball's Most Beautiful Junkmaster
Jered Weaver was a Cy Young contender just a few years ago. Now he's just barely hanging on with some of the game's junkiest junk, and it's beautiful to watch.
Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
On August 9, Los Angeles Angels starter Jered Weaver returned from a hip injury that had kept him out since late June. He pitched a middling game in what has been a rough season, giving up two runs over five cautious innings and earning a no decision in an extra-innings Angels win. Five days later in Kansas City, Weaver allowed only one unearned run through five frames, then hung a curveball to Eric Hosmer in the sixth. The resulting two-run shot precipitated Weaver's exit at the inning's end. If these unremarkable outings disappointed Angels fans hoping for a stronger stretch-run boost, they did not surprise; volatility has become the former ace's standard. He followed the outing against the Royals by pitching six and a third shutout innings against the White Sox, and followed that by surrendering six and eight runs in his next two starts.
By most any conventional metric, Weaver's 2015 has been a disappointment. His ERA is the worst of his career, almost a run-and-a-half higher than last year's mark. His fastball, after several years of diminution, is now just a tick quicker than R.A. Dickey's. He is averaging nearly two fewer strikeouts per game than he has in any of his nine MLB seasons, and he never struck out all that many guys out to begin with.
The three consecutive seasons in which Weaver finished in the top five of Cy Young voting, from 2010 to 2012, seem a long way gone. The time between that run and his present troubles, a span which featured plenty of more modest successes, now seems the first shallow drop in a decline that will only get steeper.
But it is not that simple. Weaver, who can still sometimes, somehow wade through a handful of innings with enough panache to keep his team in the game—and enough credibility to suggest that the next start might be better—remains something of a miracle. Even his poorest outings feature a handful of micro-masterpieces. Sums and averages cannot capture the muted awe of watching Weaver get good big league hitters out with the stuff that he throws.
I would argue that Weaver's pitches are the most beautiful in baseball. This is a tough task, I realize, because there are quite a few pitchers whose offerings cut the air brilliantly—subtle or sweeping, immaculately timed, with little signature tilts to their lines or dives—and who have the added benefit of being very good, right now. Think of Felix Hernandez's changeup somehow taking on extra molecular density at the fiftieth foot, or Zack Greinke's slider waiting for a swing to start before pivoting, matador-style, just past the bat-end. If the purpose of a pitch is to fool a hitter, it would stand to reason that the pitches that fit their ideal forms most perfectly would be those that fool hitters most often. Weaver's, now, are decidedly not in this camp.
The story of sports' evolution is one of increasing strength and speed, with beauty following behind and taking what it can. Hernandez and Greinke, though less than Herculean by their profession's standards, are very strong men, to the point that even their change-ups and sliders go faster than 85 miles per hour. I am thinking that swings-and-misses resulting from these pitches show the value of form and design, but also of a kind of strength that, although not as obvious as, say, Aroldis Chapman's, is remarkable all the same.
Jered Weaver, at least within the context of his game, doesn't have that kind of strength and, therefore, each of his successful pitches is about as close to an absolute triumph of shape—as purely beautiful, and as purely nothing-else—as you'll find in contemporary baseball.
It all starts with one of the game's strangest deliveries, wherein the 6'7" Weaver plants his right foot on the rubber, steps with his left foot almost directly towards third, and whisks his arm around in a low three-quarter slot. The pitch comes in on a hypotenuse. The fastball, slow and straight, buttons itself to the low hem of the strike zone. The change taunts and scatters. The curve has an arc that could chart international flight paths, and it stays in the air long enough to get a goddamn sunburn. When these work, batters are left to chop and heave and hope.
Sometimes, this chopping and heaving and hoping lasts a while, and early innings end with muttered words and shaking heads. But then the fifth or sixth rolls around, as it must, and the fastball can't quite sneak by again, or the looping curve becomes a hard liner, and Weaver exits as something more noble than a failure but less than a success.
Back in 2011, when Weaver was one of baseball's best ascendant starters, he bucked the counsel of his agent, Scott Boras, and signed a five-year extension with the Angels a year before hitting free agency, at a rate significantly below market value. He cited desires to remain close to home and to avoid the distraction of ongoing negotiations. To many, the decision was a too-rare example of a star athlete displaying loyalty. To others, it was a vexing instance of a millionaire in a brief career sacrificing for the good of his billionaire employers, and employing the preferred rhetoric of management in the process.
Whatever the case, Weaver appears to have received some meager karmic recompense on the deal's back end. If he were working for any of a dozen lousy teams, Weaver's current campaign would be an exercise in pure decay, a pitcher playing out the sad string. If he were on one of baseball's best, he might have been shuttled away into a long relief role. The Angels, though, are both relevant, at three-and-a-half games out of the second Wild Card spot, and pitching-thin. They still need him, however removed from his prime he may be.
This means we'll watch Weaver start games for as long as the Angels are in contention. He will face young and conventional fireballers in the other dugouts and bearers of bad news in the opposite broadcast booths armed with stats and scouting reports. He will spin baseball's pearliest stuff, win or lose. He knows no other way.