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Don’t forget to be excited about Luke Weaver

The lowest FIP among 2017 Cardinals starters belonged to... wait, him?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Prospects are funny things. There are a couple varieties that are easy to love. There are the elites — the Alex Reyeses, the ones we’re told for years could be the next big thing, the ones whose names are known by hardcore and casual fans alike. Then there are the cult heroes, the ones who for one reason or another you can squint at and imagine a great future despite the misgivings of scouts — your Max Schrocks and Dylan Carlsons (or, in their day, Tommy Pham and Matt Carpenter).

In between those types, there are a lot of prospects. A lot of good prospects. Grade-B guys, or 50 FV guys, or #50-150 type guys, or whatever your preferred label is. You know the type. The Cardinals have a lot of them right now, as they always seem to. And for some reason, at least for me, it can be hard to muster much excitement about these guys. One likely reason would be the way their futures are prognosticated by the prognosticators:

Likely average regular. Projects as a #3-4 starter. High floor, low ceiling.

And it’s certainly true that a lot of guys in that tier of prospects end up average MLB players. Ending up an average MLB player is, all things considered, a strong outcome for practically any prospect. Anybody who is disappointed in what Kolten Wong has become, for example, is just not paying close attention to prospect outcomes. A cheap, average MLB contributor is both a valuable asset to a team, and one of the 300 or so very best baseball players in the world, so that’s pretty good. Smart fans get this.

But it’s hard to blame anybody for not being excited about a young player we’ve been conditioned to see as most likely average. Our excitement is reserved for the guys like Reyes, who we’re told all along can be stars. Or guys like fill-in-your-pet-underrated-prospect, who require little emotional investment but promise tremendous emotional payoff if they turn into Pham or Carpenter. The grade B, 50 FV guys? Maybe they’re exciting if they have an obviously elite tool (like Tyler O’Neill’s power) that gives them obvious upside, but if they don’t and all you ever read is “average regular/#3-4 starter,” it’s easy to forget to dream on their upside.

So let me pitch you on being psyched for Luke Weaver getting a full season in the Cardinals rotation.

This is a bit of a hobbyhorse for me — I wrote about it way back in August, too, so I don’t want to simply recapitulate all of that. Here’s a quick summary of that piece: look at how he tore through the minors! Look how good he’s already been in the majors! Look at how some of the scouting knocks on him start to fall apart or simply look irrelevant under scrutiny! Maybe he’s just good?

Those things are all worth paying attention to. Weaver did tear through the minors — his minor-league FIP starts with a two, and his minor-league ERA starts with a one. He was 23 when he reached the big leagues for good, and he did so after just 275.1 minor-league innings. A comparable pitching prospect by the numbers would be Brent Honeywell. He just had a Tommy John surgery, but had he not had it, he’d have debuted at some point this year at age 23, having dominated the minors in a similar fashion to Weaver, although in more minor-league innings (416 to date). Brent Honeywell was Baseball America’s #14 overall prospect coming into 2018, and there’s a good chance you knew his name and view him as a possible future #1 starter.

Even before surgery, was Brent Honeywell a better pitching prospect than Luke Weaver? Are you sure? What makes you so sure, if you are?

And Weaver has had very good results in the majors so far. His MLB career FIP is 3.61 (and that includes a 2016 cup of coffee that saw him nibbling a lot, falling behind in counts, and generally looking not-quite-ready). Last year, his FIP in 60.1 innings was 3.17. His xFIP was even lower — 2.93. Another comparable young pitcher would be... hmm. This is hard, because pitchers under 25 don’t actually do this in MLB very often at all.

Luis Castillo? He’s getting articles written about him by credible people with the word “ace” in the title. Jose Berrios? He’s a big deal. Michael Fulmer and Aaron Nola? Ditto. And then there’s a guy like Tyler Glasnow, who was born two days after Weaver. Glasnow’s a bigger name, always has been. Better scouting grades, always higher on lists, comparable minor-league dominance. But in the majors, Glasnow’s stuff hasn’t played. He has a 6.75 ERA and 5.74 FIP in 85.1 MLB innings. He could still be great, but he has adjustments left to make that Weaver doesn’t.

At this point, are you taking Glasnow over Weaver in a straight-up trade? Are you sure? I humbly submit to you that if you are confidently saying yes, you are either a deeply committed fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates (and man, I’m sorry, you had a nice little window there and you’re right to be pissed at ownership), or a person who is too confident in your own opinions, or both.

Or let’s look at this another way. Take Luke Weaver’s projections right now: both Steamer and ZiPS peg Weaver as a 3+ WAR pitcher, given a full-season load of innings. That means we’d project his production while under team control as something in the 15+ WAR range — we should discount some for injury risk. On average, pitchers ranked in the #1-10 prospect tier end up producing 14.4 WAR while under team control. So right now, Luke Weaver projects to be just as valuable, if not more, as any pitcher on any prospect list out there. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Weaver has fallen through a gap in how the baseball media tells us to set our expectations for young players. Before a guy debuts, we mostly use ordinal ranks — Walker Buehler is inherently exciting in way a #50 prospect isn’t. Or, after a relatively unheralded guy debuts, he might have a breakout year, and that would let us know he’s exciting — like Michael Fulmer in 2016. Those guys don’t get overlooked.

But what if a guy throws just enough excellent innings that he’s not formally a “prospect” anymore, but not enough for people to notice it, conclude it’s real, and call it a breakout? What if he was also a little too well-known to qualify as a true sleeper prospect, who at least fans of his own team could get all geeked out about? The normal heuristics we have for focusing on young players don’t apply to that guy. That guy’s easy to overlook, even if he shows potential for stardom. That guy’s Luke Weaver.