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Jered Weaver and the Giant Red Flag

Last night, Jered Weaver took the hill for his second start of the season. It didn’t go very well, as he gave up five runs in five innings and walked twice as many guys as he struck out. But, the game was in Texas and the wind was blowing out, so there were some environmental factors in play, and Weaver’s hardly the only ace who got lit up yesterday. It was a day when David Price, Stephen Strasburg, R.A. Dickey, Johnny Cueto, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, and Yu Darvish also pitched, and yet the league average ERA for the day was 5.11. A lot of good pitchers got torched yesterday.

But, Weaver’s story is different. Good pitchers are going to have bad starts, and it’s usually not a reason for concern. Weaver’s performance, though, should be cause for alarm in Anaheim, because… well, here’s a graph.

WeaverVelo

Last night, Jered Weaver’s fastball sat at 85 MPH, the slowest average velocity he’s had during the PITCHF/x era. In fact, since the start of 2008, Weaver has only had an average fastball velocity below 86.0 mph three times; his final start of 2012 and his first two starts of 2013.

In those three starts, here is Weaver’s total line: 12 IP, 11 H, 8 BB, 7 K, 2 HR. In those starts, he’s posted a 6.00 ERA/6.25 FIP, and simply hasn’t looked like the Jered Weaver of old. Or, even the Jered Weaver of late last summer.

Last April, Weaver was sitting 88-92, and even throughout the summer, he was regularly topping 90 mph with his fastball. He wasn’t throwing as hard as he did back in 2008 or 2010, when his average fastball topped 90, but he was throwing hard enough to pound the zone and get his usual array of harmless fly balls. He spent a few weeks on the disabled list in June because of a back problem, but even after coming off the DL, he looked just fine for several weeks. But then came the dingers.

Weaver’s career HR/FB rate is 7.8%, which has allowed him to get away with pitching up in the zone, because all those fly balls that didn’t leave the yard fell comfortably into his outfielder’s gloves. Starting in July, however, the ball stopped staying in the yard. After throwing eight shutout innings against the Orioles on July 7th, Weaver had only allowed five home runs in his first 14 starts, and he hadn’t allowed a home run in any of his previous four outings, spanning a total of 27 2/3 innings.

July 15th, the Yankees hit three long balls off of him, the start of a three month problem with the long ball. Over his final 15 starts, he allowed 15 home runs, and during that stretch, his fastball went from 88 mph down to 86 mph. Continuing the trend out to last night, he’s now lost three miles-per-hour off his fastball over his last 17 outings, and he’s allowed 1.49 HR/9 over 102 innings during that span.

From his MLB debut until July 14th, 2012, he had a career HR/9 of 0.92. His HR rate in his last 17 starts is 61% higher than his career HR rate up to that point.

Interestingly, Weaver left last night’s game with an elbow problem, but it was a strain of his non-throwing arm after falling while trying to avoid a comebacker. The Angels say he’s questionable to make his next start, and it’s possible that he could end up on the DL because of the issue. But, given what Weaver has done over the last few months, and where his fastball has been headed, the more long term concern still has to be the health of his right arm.

Velocity isn’t everything, and velocity loss is not always a sure sign of injury. But, as Bill Petti has noted with his excellent series of articles on the subject over the last year, sudden drops in velocity can be the sign of larger problems. At a minimum, it appears that Weaver’s slower fastball is dampening his ability to give up non-homer fly balls, which has always been his biggest asset. Even if the decreasing fastball speed isn’t pointing towards a more significant health issue, a homer-prone Weaver simply isn’t going to be as effective as he used to be.

The Angels rotation entered the year with significant question marks at the back end, but given Weaver’s performance in his first two starts — coupled with his second half numbers in 2012 — the front of their rotation may be an even bigger concern now. They’ve spent a lot of money building a dynamic offense that is going to score a lot of runs, but they’re going to have to keep opponents off the scoreboard in order to get that line-up into the playoffs. If Weaver either needs an extended break to build his arm strength back up, or if he’s simply not going to able to get his fastball back to where it used to be, then the Angels lack of pitching depth could become a significant problem.