GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Jered Weaver figures his arm started to deteriorate about four years ago, which is neither a typical nor atypical time for an arm to do such a thing, because when it comes to the greatest mystery in sports, typical and atypical do not exist. The arm is a riddle. Rather than solve it, pitchers simply hope to make it through without a scar for their trouble.
Gone are 4 mph or so from Weaver's fastball, likely on permanent vacation with the memory of a young arm that used to crack 90 mph consistently. That arm is gone if not forgotten, because peppering the strike zone with mid-80s fastballs serves as the worst kind of reminder of that which the body no longer can muster. Weaver is the Los Angeles Angels' ace, a $17 million-a-year starting pitcher expected to lead the rotation of a team with the best player in the world and a whole bunch more high-paid ones to the postseason. Last season, his average fastball velocity of 86.5 mph ranked 94th of 96 pitchers with at least 150 innings. The two behind him were soft-tossing left-hander Mark Buehrle and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
"The game adjusts you," Weaver said. "It's a matter of how you're going to adjust back."
Weaver is 31 years old, and he speaks with the maturity of someone who came to terms with what many ignore to their own peril: the necessity to change when the game mandates it. Notice that Weaver doesn't view this as a passive arrangement. The game does the adjusting; the game rejects those who resist adjustments; he submits to the game's demands, three All-Star appearances be damned.
And what it demands from an 86-mph-throwing right-hander is near-perfection. During a 4 1/3-inning stint against the Cleveland Indians on Monday in which he yielded three runs, Weaver's fastball clocked in 86 or 87 mph on scouts' radar guns behind home plate. He popped a pair of 89s, a few 88s, plus some 84s and 85s to balance out the equation. Weaver is the Richard Simmons of pitchers, evermore stuck in the 80s.
"You're not gonna have velocity your whole career," Weaver said. "It's a matter of how you're going to make adjustments to get guys out. Instead of going out there trying to strike people out, I'm trying to go out there and miss barrels and not do too much. Velocity's not an issue for me."
He tells himself this because what other choice does he have? Weaver loves pitching. He believes it the sort of privilege that requires respect when slighted and calls for tears after no-hitters. Pitchers can't long for lost velocity like it's some girlfriend who dumped them. They must become masters of craft, the sort who defy the numbers that predict doom. Weaver is the poster boy of this. Among his poor velocity, his high flyball rate and his strikeout-rate dip, Weaver marries the indicators for injury and poor performance.
They run in grave contrast to his actual performance. Weaver's ERA ranks second in the American League over the last five years. Opponents' .277 on-base percentage ranks third in all of baseball, ahead of Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and other Cy Young winners. So far, he has shrugged aside convention, knowing it takes ingenuity to beat the arm's challenges.
Weaver believes he is different, and he is. It's not just his delivery, a funky, tricky, utterly unique motion in which he steps across his body and carries his vertically cocked arm across a horizontal path. It's his perfection of the delivery. It may or may not have contributed to his dip in velocity – chances are it did – but pitchers cannot unteach the way they throw the ball. It is part of their DNA. They can ensure it is at its maximum efficacy, and Weaver does just that.
Each of the past two seasons, Weaver has thrown his fastball and changeup most frequently. Not only does his sinker's movement mimic the changeup, the release point is almost identical, according to research from AriBall.com. Similarly, Weaver's curveball and slider run along a similar horizontal axis. It's the apex of deception, and considering Weaver's delivery already creates a mess of arms and legs flying in every which direction, it is his equalizer.
"It's just a matter of getting a feel for your body," Weaver said. "You can't go out there and throw every pitch at 100 percent anymore. I'm not 23."
Trevor Bauer is 23. He pitched opposite Weaver on Monday. In his first inning, Bauer threw 14 fastballs. Their velocities: 97, 96, 96, 97, 97, 97, 97, 96, 97, 96, 96, 96, 96, 96. He came on the inning after 24-year-old starter Danny Salazar left the game. He sat at 95 mph, acquainted himself well at 96 and dropped a 97. In the Indians' wild-card game last season, he hit 100.
This is what Weaver faces in a league throwing harder than ever: a 10-mph deficit. He confronts it every time he pitches, well aware it can break him. And so he keeps the integrity of his delivery in place and keeps the faith it will sustain him as he takes measures to ensure no further degradation renders even that a challenge.
His fastball started to go when his shoulder started to bark at him. "I've been going out there at 70 percent sometimes," Weaver admitted. So this offseason, he retained Yoichi Terada, an Orange County-based masseuse familiar to Weaver through former Angels reliever Hisanori Takahashi. All offseason, Weaver visited Terada and let his right shoulder snap, crackle and pop under the pressure of Terada.
"It doesn't feel too good," Weaver said. "That's for sure. But you gotta do it. All the joints are moving the way they're supposed to. I feel better than I have in four or five years."
Maybe in a week or two, when his arm stretches out and the season beckons, he'll find a missing mile or two per hour and return to the respectable range in which he toiled for years. It happens. Just not very often. So Weaver can't rely on it. He can't do anything but accept whatever substandard raw materials his arm offers and keep processing them into acceptable products.
He'll never solve the mystery. Surviving this long, and with this much success, is a victory itself.
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