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System Sundays: Briefly Considering the Debut of Luke Weaver

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The Cardinals had a young pitching prospect make his major league debut yesterday. Let’s watch and see what we can glean from the performance.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Luke Weaver made his major league debut yesterday, facing off against the high-powered Chicago Cubs’ offense, and all things considered, it really couldn’t have gone much better. Sure, if offered the choice, one might have looked for him to be a bit more efficient with his pitches, rather than racking up a high enough count he was on his way out of the game after four, but that was primarily the result of a long second inning. Those sorts of things happen. Even so, better efficiency will be the number one thing I’m personally on the lookout for from Dream Weaver Jr. when next he takes the mound.

I’m sure Joe will do a breakdown of Weaver’s stuff via Pitch f/x and all that sort of stuff; he’s quite good at teasing details out of that data that I have a hard time converting from numbers into a visual idea of the stuff. Therefore, I’ll just briefly put down on digital paper what I thought of Weaver watching him yesterday.

The thing is, I’ve seen Weaver pitch plenty of times. The miracle of modern technology (and also modern niche media catering), that is minor-league online streaming has made it possible to see minor leaguers more often than ever before, right from the comfort of one’s own computer screen, and wherever it is you sit while viewing said screen. However, I also have to admit that there’s something about watching the game via milb.com streaming that doesn’t exactly translate to the majors. The camera angles can vary wildly, the production is often handled differently, and depending on how high a level you’re talking, you may be watching the entirety of the game from just one or two shots. And, let’s face it: I’ve seen a couple hundred minor league games online over the past few years. I’ve seen literally thousands of major league games from the time I was old enough to know what I was watching until basically this moment. What I’m trying to say is, there are things you can see live, and there are things you can see on video. And then there are things that only completely fall into place once you’ve seen it on a major league mound, from a major league camera, in what is basically the universal reference point for the vast majority of baseball fans. Know what I mean?

First, let’s get some video of Weaver doing his thing stuck in here.

Huh. Actually, the mlb.com video of Weaver’s debut is not available to embed. It appears videos cannot be embedded for a certain amount of time. This seems moderately short-sighted to me on MLB’s part, but I suppose this way if you want to see a recent highlight they get the pageview. Well, here’s the link, and I’ll find another video to actually embed.

And here’s some embeddable video, via minorleaguebaseball:

Okay, now that we’ve got that, let’s go over some things.

First off, physically, I have to say the pitcher I’m most forcibly reminded of watching Weaver pitch is Tim Hudson, the former A’s and Braves sinkerballer who made his living working at the bottom of the zone with a nasty two-seamer and a plus split-finger pitch. Weaver just physically and aesthetically reminds me a ton of Hudson; the one difference being that where Hudson’s success was based largely on rolling up huge groundball numbers because of his sinker, Weaver’s fastball has nowhere near the same kind of downward action. Which brings us to the other, more salient comp I have for Weaver.

Back when I wrote up this year’s top prospects list (which, by the way, if you’re waiting for the continuation of the so-far performances by the list, I’ll get back to that next Sunday; the debut of a prospect was too timely to pass up this particular day), I compared Weaver in terms of approach and stuff to a former Cardinal hurler that I’m sure plenty here were a little worried to hear the name of: Anthony Reyes. Having watched Weaver in a big league game now, with all the accoutrement, I can safely say I feel just as confident in that comp as I did then, if not more.

And anyone thinking I am perhaps damning Weaver with faint praise when I comp him to ol’ flat bill, I think it’s important to point out once again just how good a prospect Anthony Reyes really was. Weaver is currently pitching his age-22 season, and put up dominant strikeout and walk numbers at Double A: 88:10 K/BB in 77 innings at Springfield, in an extremely high-strikeout era. Reyes, meanwhile, wasn’t drafted by the Cardinals until after his senior season at USC, so his age-22 season was actually his post-draft debut year. Still, he reached Double A at 22 (it was Tennessee at the time, rather than Springfield for El Birdos), threw 74 innings there (a conveniently similar number of innings to Weaver), and put together a 102:13 K/BB ratio, at a time when strikeouts were less rampant than they are now. In other words, the numbers Weaver put up this year are really, really good, and justifiably got him well into the top 100 overall prospect lists. Reyes was even a little better, arguably.

In order to better visualise the stuff similarities, let’s get some video of Reyes up as well, shall we? Luckily for us, thanks to VEB denizen michael681999 we have footage of Reyes’s major league debut in Milwaukee available via Youtube.

Hopefully everyone sees what I’m talking about now; the camera angle is different, but the two pitchers have similar riding life on their respective fastballs (and both work right around 92-94, with a bit more addition and subtraction in terms of velocity than you maybe see from many pitchers), and similarly wicked breaking changeups. They also, unfortunately for Weaver, have somewhat similar arm actions, though Weaver’s is both less extreme than Reyes’s and also helped along by the fact he uses his lower body much better to help generate power than the very passive former USC ace.

Where there are definite similarities, however, there are also some differences, and in those differences I think we find reasons to believe Weaver may be the superior prospect.

First off, watching the Reyes video, I’m struck again by just how hopeless he was when it came to any kind of breaking ball. Tried a curve, tried a slider, tried a cutter. None of them worked. Weaver, on the other hand, while lacking a big putaway sort of breaker, has developed a cut fastball that I think is already better than any of the spinny-type pitches Anthony ever came up with in his career. The called third strike to Fowler leading off the game was Weaver’s cutter, and while it came in harder than I would probably prefer (he threw it at 91, while I would prefer to see it in the upper 80s considering the velocity on his fastball), it also showed very nice horizontal movement to the glove side.

It’s also interesting to note that, while both Reyes and Weaver have outstanding changeups, with big-time drop and fade, Reyes threw his extremely slow, compared to what’s typically considered the ideal differential. Usually something in the 10% range is considered ideal in terms of speed differential; a pitcher working in the low 90s should be shooting for about an 8-10 mph difference. Any less separation, and the change can morph into a batting practice fastball; too much more, and the hitter has a better chance to recognise and adjust to the pitch. We saw Weaver work 92-94 with his fastball, mostly, and 83-85 with his change. That’s pretty much exactly right. Reyes, meanwhile, would occasionally drop his change all the way into the mid-70s, giving him sometimes 18+ mph of separation. His changeup moved so much it still worked, but it was different from how we usually think of changeups being effective.

Grading Weaver’s pitches, I would first look at the fastball as an above-average offering, though one that tends to be a little flat. Again, it reminds me of Reyes in the way that both of them had excellent run on the fastball, but very little downward plane. Weaver isn’t the biggest guy, and also gets very low in his delivery, so he’s never going to be a steep angle pitcher the way, say, Michael Wacha is. With above-average velocity and plus running action, though, I would have no problem putting at least a 55 on the heater, and I could potentially see a 60 grade. It’s always going to be a little flat in terms of tilt, but I think he can be effective all the same.

The changeup is obviously the big attraction, and Weaver’s is as good as advertised. The speed differential is pretty much ideal, the arm speed is nearly indistinguishable, and the amount of movement he gets on the pitch is outstanding. Watch the action on the change to both Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo above; neither hitter has any change of really doing anything with a pitch located that well, moving that much, and delivered with that level of deception. The fact Weaver was comfortable going to the change against both a right- and lefthanded hitter actually bumps it up even a half-grade further for me. It’s a better change than Marco Gonzales throws, and right in line quality-wise (though in a different way), with Michael Wacha’s change of pace at its best, I think. I’m going to be aggressive and put a 70 on the pitch.

The cutter is potentially the most important offering for Weaver going forward. Given that he lacks the big swing-and-miss breaking ball we see in, say, Alex Reyes, it will bear watching how well he can use a pitch with more horizontal movement than vertical drop to keep the ball off barrels, and if he will be able to generate whiffs with the pitch. It’s interesting that both his fastball and cutter show intriguing East-West movement, but come in fairly flat in terms of the vertical. Perhaps that will actually work out to be an advantage, as the pitches will be harder to identify as separate by hitters, but it concerns me all the same that he has a narrower range of both velocities and elevations he can naturally get to.

That being said, the cutter is sharp and late, and I can certainly see it being a weapon against lefties even more so than righthanders, simply because it looks to be effective running in on the hands of lefthanded hitters. I’ll put a 50 on the cutter, with the potential for a 55 if he can figure out a way to either add a little depth or prove he can miss righthanded bats with the pitch.

So what we have is a pitcher with a 55 fastball, a 70 changeup, and a 50 cutter. That’s a pretty exciting package. As I said already, it does worry me a little that Weaver’s stuff is all a little too similar. The fact he tunnels it all very well should be a positive, but this is a pitcher who is going to do basically all his pitching within a ~10 mph range. The separation of the change and fastball is ideal, but the fact that’s the widest velocity separation he’s going to have, full stop, is a bit of a concern.

We do have to also consider the fact Weaver has shown an ability in the minors to throw an absurd amount of strikes. Obviously, he got a little out of sorts in the second inning yesterday, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary in a player’s first major league outing, with adrenaline and mechanics and gameplan all interacting as a guy tries to keep himself together on the highest stage. For basically his entire career, Luke Weaver has absolutely pounded the zone, and I expect that to continue as he gets his feet wet in the big leagues, particularly against a slightly less intimidating lineup than Chicago’s.

For me, all of this adds up to something like a number three sort of starter, potentially a very good number three or even a guy who can slide into number two territory if things break right for him. He’ll succeed in a similar way to how we see Mike Leake succeed when Leake is going good, in that he’ll work multiple pitches within the strike zone that all look similar enough to be very deceptive. Where Leake is a heavy groundball guy, though, Weaver will be a more flyball-oriented, I think. Luckily, he has the stuff to strike out more hitters than Leake, helping to make up for the potentially higher slugging profile. It was interesting to note how many grounders the Cubs hit off Weaver yesterday, so perhaps there’s just enough wrinkle at the end of his pitches that he’s getting hitters off-balance and hitting the ball at a non-ideal point in their swings.

I still worry about the long-term durability of Luke Weaver, but I have to admit that so long as he holds up, he looks like a much better pitcher than I expected on draft night of 2014. He also, in an admittedly tiny sample, looked something very much like major league-ready to me yesterday. If Michael Wacha is out an extended period of time, I would have no problem with Weaver simply remaining in his spot. At the very least, it would give a chance for an extended look to see how much, if any, further baking he might need in the minors.