COMMENTARY | On June 21, the day after the most remarkable win of the season for the Los Angeles Angels, the news was not good for their pitching staff.
First came the disclosure that left-hander Jason Vargas will miss four to six weeks with a blood clot below his left arm. Vargas has been right with C.J. Wilson as the club's most effective starting pitcher this year.
The Angels also revealed that reliever Ryan Madson will not throw from a mound anytime soon. Madson hasn't pitched since 2011 because of surgery on his right elbow. The Angels signed him as a free agent last winter with hopes he could help their bullpen. But there's still pain in his elbow, and there's no timetable for his first bullpen tosses since the middle of May.
After all that, Jered Weaver took his start against the Pittsburgh Pirates. His counterpart, Gerrit Cole, was the top overall amateur draft selection in 2011 after starring locally at Orange Lutheran High School and UCLA.
Cole threw eight pitches reaching at least 100 miles per hour on the radar at Angel Stadium. Weaver threw two pitches that reached 90. Cole allowed no runs and two hits through six innings. The Angels finally tapped him for two runs in the seventh. Weaver lasted only six innings, allowing four runs on nine hits. The Pirates won 5-2.
More alarming, the flyballs that used to so often register outs for Weaver were flying hard and deep. Weaver allowed three doubles, two homers and a triple, the last of which center fielder Peter Bourjos lost in the twilight. Weaver didn't miss many bats. By the fifth inning, he couldn't chuck any kind of fastball harder than 86 miles per hour, according to the GameDay feature on MLB.com.
Flame-throwing has never been part of Weaver's game, of course, but neither has soft-tossing. Weaver's effectiveness came from a deceptive motion throwing across his 6-foot-7-inch frame, a good rising fastball and a killer changeup. In the last three complete seasons, Weaver was an elite American League pitcher. He led the circuit with 233 strikeouts in 2010. In 2011 and 2012 combined, he was 38-13 with a 2.58 ERA in 63 starts.
This year, Weaver is 1-4 with a 4.65 ERA. He missed seven weeks with a fractured left elbow, and then came back with a nice start against the Los Angeles Dodgers, striking out seven in six innings of a 4-3 win on May 29.
But in every succeeding appearance, Weaver has been hit progressively harder. In four starts this month, opponents have bashed Weaver for a .295 batting average and a .862 ERA, including 12 extra-base hits (four of them homers) in 23 2/3 innings.
Last week, Fangraphs.com produced an article entitled "Jered Weaver's Declining Skills," complete with charts demonstrating downward trajectories in Weaver's average fastball velocity, strikeout percentage, walk percentage, first-pitch strike percentage and strike-zone percentage from 2010 to the present. Of course, coming down from his 2010 levels didn't hurt Weaver much in 2011 and 2012. The question now is whether he has come down so far that he no longer can be effective.
Weaver's June 21 start did not produce firm grounds for an optimistic answer. Angels manager Mike Scioscia mentioned to reporters after the game that Weaver's velocity was back to last year's levels, but that's hardly cause for celebration. It's true, also, that Weaver struck out three and didn't walk anyone, so some of the control was there. But not the command.
Home run balls to Pedro Alvarez and Jordy Mercer were letter-high fastballs, 85 and 86 miles per hour. Andrew McCutchen destroyed a rising 89-mph fastball for a double to center field. McCutchen, of course, is one of the game's best hitters.
Scioscia also indicated that Weaver will be himself once he is able to control counts better and exploit his secondary pitches. That's a little hard to understand based on Weaver's start against the Pirates. Weaver threw first-pitch strikes to the first four hitters who slammed him for extra bases. Two of those extra-base hits came on 0-1 pitches. More worrisome is that the 79-mph changeup isn't as good coming off a fastball that goes in 85 as opposed to 88.
Weaver told reporters after the game that the days of 93-mph fastballs are in his past. He's going to have to live with what he's got. Doesn't seem to be very much these days.
The 30-year-old pitcher definitely is someone to watch for the rest of this season. The Angels were counting on him to be Jered Weaver. Could be that he's turning into something else. Angels fans have to be hoping that something else is a pitcher who succeeds with guile when velocity fails. They definitely hope he isn't turning into a has-been.
Bill Peterson has covered and written about Major League Baseball for more than 30 years in Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Texas and Los Angeles, where he now lives and writes a baseball blog, Big Leagues in Los Angeles. He is a lifetime member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
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