Don’t tell Haren and Weaver pitching is easy
ANAHEIM, Calif. – So, it’s a time for pitchers again, when greenies are gone and No. 3 hitters can first handle a glove and cover some ground and someone gave back the 3 mph that drug testing took away.
Through six weeks, ERA’s are down for a fifth consecutive season, and will stay that way as long as there’s May hail in Minnesota, a pitching rebirth in Cleveland, that lineup in San Diego and an offensive chill across much of the game.
Already, 73 games have ended in a shutout, a record through May 10. They opened a baseball season and a soccer game broke out.
The emphasis has changed, they say. The hitters shrunk and, in standing, the defenses and pitching swelled.
Yeah, it’s time to throw fastballs down the middle and watch them die a step from the warning track, followed by a helmet slam and another fastball down the middle.
Maybe this looks suspiciously like a trend from the outside, where the Year of the Pitcher came packaged on spreadsheets, a no-hitter cluster and a no-stick championship team like the San Francisco Giants.
From the mood-lit clubhouse of the Los Angeles Angels, where Haren and Jered Weaver(notes) have punished offenses for the better part of April and May, it’s not quite that easy. They required years to reach something like professional confidence and competence, paths of instant achievement, then slow growth and failure and comprehension.
They came upon personal and delicate formulas for success, and now share them over dinners on the road and across outfield lawns playing catch.
Through eight starts apiece, and while anchoring a starting rotation that has dragged the Angels into a surprise first place nearing the season’s quarter pole, Haren and Weaver have matching 1.87 earned run averages and also rank in the American League’s top five in WHIP, strikeouts and percentage of quality starts.
Weaver, after winning his first six starts, is 6-2. Haren, who has allowed a total of three earned runs over 20 2/3 innings in three no-decisions, is 4-2. Together, by most analytics, they are the most effective twosome in the game, better than Trevor Cahill(notes) and Gio Gonzalez(notes) in Oakland, than Roy Halladay(notes) and Cole Hamels(notes) in Philadelphia, than Justin Masterson(notes) and Josh Tomlin(notes) in Cleveland, than Josh Johnson(notes) and Ricky Nolasco(notes) in Florida, than Tim Hudson(notes) and Tommy Hanson(notes) in Atlanta, than Tim Lincecum(notes) and your next best in San Francisco.
It’s six weeks, not even 40 games yet. But, if this is to be Year of the Pitcher II, then so far they are the “II.” Or, certainly, two of the “II.”
Haren, at 30 years old, nine seasons in the big leagues and on his fourth organization, talks like the sage veteran of the pair.
“I’ve been around a little bit,” he said.
Where he recalled throwing 95 mph and playing his signature splitter off that, he said, “Now I’m at 90 and throwing 50 cutters a game.”
After falling for five consecutive seasons, Haren’s groundball rate is trending up again, a happy surprise for him.
Weaver is 28. From the pitcher who, not two years out of Long Beach State, won his first nine decisions, lost 20 of his next 45 and is 34-21 since, Weaver has taken command of four pitches – and four pitches within those pitches. Always effective through command and deception, he now changes speeds with his fastball, signature changeup, slider and curve.
“When I first came in, I was relying on talent,” he said. “I’d pitch to my strengths. I didn’t know the league and it didn’t know me. The league kind of adjusted to me. I had to adjust back. That’s the hard part.”
One American League hitting coach called a Weaver game, “Some of the most uncomfortable at-bats of the season.” Weaver delivers from the extreme third-base side of the rubber, strides toward something like the third-base on-deck circle, then throws across his body. Basically, he’s pitching from behind right-handed hitters, who are batting .132 and slugging .189 against him.
The long and slow delivery, his positioning on the mound and the ability to hide the ball, he hardly gives any of it a thought. It’s how his father taught him to pitch, and how he emulated older brother Jeff, and what he brings every fifth day to the Angels.
“I’ve always had the confidence I could do the thing I’m doing,” he said. “I don’t think that’s any different than I’ve done in the past.”
The way Haren found himself four or five big league seasons in, when the results – wins and ERA – began to reflect a full season’s precision, so too has Weaver. His ERA is half what it was two years ago, when he won 16 games and was developing the knowledge and feel he has today.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia saw Orel Hershiser come along the same path, first winning, then flattening out, then winning again when it all made sense again.
“You find your game out there,” Scioscia said. “You find what you do best.”
Or, as Haren put it, “He goes out there and doesn’t have to do more than what he is.”
Then, if you’re healthy and a little lucky, too, perhaps greatness follows. And if it happens to follow a trend, well, so be it.