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System Sundays: Luke Weaver, and Connor Jones

Two pitchers diverged in a yellow wood, etc.

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

Several years ago now, the Cardinals selected a righthanded pitcher from a big-time college program with a high draft pick. Now, funny thing that; if you’re the sort of person who follows the draft much, you might be thinking, “Well, okay, Aaron, talking about a college righthander the Cards took early in the draft doesn’t really narrow things down all that much, does it?” To which I would say, um, yeah, okay. Fair enough.

What if I told you this was about a specific pitcher, though? Actually, two specific pitchers, and there’s a reason the two are linked, at least in my mind? You’d be more curious and less dismissive, right? Of course, the real problem here is that unless you’re some sort of weirdo who literally reads headlines last, you already know who I’m talking about, and kind of ruins the mystery. But just stick with me on the central conceit of this column, would you please? Suspension of disbelief, and all that sort of thing.

So several years ago, the Cardinals took a righthanded pitcher out of a major college program with their first round pick. That’s not super interesting; lots of college righties get picked early on in the draft. But the particular arc of this prospect’s stock was a little bit interesting.

This guy had come out of high school as a middling sort of prospect. Certainly not the kind of high-round pick that would basically have to forego college due to being blown away by the size of the bonus he was in line for. There was talent there, certainly, but he was not a slam dunk.

So said prospect went to school, worked as a swingman his freshman year at Florida State, and was...okay. He wasn’t good, certainly, but freshmen very rarely are. He made six starts, got into ten more games out of the ‘pen, and overall threw 41 innings. He ended up with a 5.93 ERA, 40 strikeouts, 41 hits allowed, and 21 walks. Like I said, not good. But that’s what freshmen at major college programs usually do. It’s a whole new world with better competition than they’ve ever faced consistently before, and they usually struggle. Not surprising.

Okay, so it’s Luke Weaver. Just get that out of the way.

Weaver’s sophomore season, he was dynamite. He worked almost exclusively in the rotation (made a couple relief appearances, but only two, compared to fifteen starts), threw 98 innings, and dominated. He struck out 119 batters, walked just 19, and allowed only 78 hits. A 2.29 ERA and a WHIP under 1.00 tend to get one noticed pitching in the ACC, one of the strongest conferences in college baseball.

That season, Weaver worked consistently from 93-95 with his fastball. He would touch 97 when he wanted. His fastball got swings and misses up in the zone, and his changeup was a weapon. He tried both a slider and curveball, but neither was very good at the time. It didn’t really matter; his one-two punch was so good college hitters were pretty much helpless against him. A lot of that scouting report probably sounds familiar, right?

If you had asked me (or pretty much any draftnik), at the end of Weaver’s sophomore season where he would go in the draft, I would have said he was a lock for the top ten. Premium velocity, a true plus offspeed pitch, and just generally lots of swing and miss in his arsenal, plus the fact he was succeeding at a major college program in a top conference. He was very near the top of the draft board.

However, in Weaver’s junior season, he was markedly worse. The ERA remained low, at 2.62, but there were tons of troubling signs. His strikeouts dropped off a cliff, from 119 in 98 innings to just 85 in 106 innings. He kept his walk rate down, but the stuff declined significantly. Instead of 93-95, he sat 90-93 most of the spring. Some outings he was even a little lower than that, dipping into the 88 mph range. His changeup was still really good, but the breaking balls were even worse, as he didn’t seem to have the same kind of arm speed he had as a sophomore. The results weren’t terrible, certainly, as he still had good feel for pitching, but the stuff was way down from where it had been.

When the Cardinals took Weaver in the first round (27th overall), of the 2014 draft, I was not a fan of the pick. The numbers were solid, and that was a positive, but he was trending in the wrong direction to my eye. Here was a guy with a risky arm action, whose stuff had dropped off significantly from 2013 to ‘14. He had lost three miles an hour off his fastball, and really only had the changeup to recommend him. There were some concerns he was on the small side, but I was honestly less worried about the frame than I was the arm action and the declining stuff.

Well, fast forward to now, and Luke Weaver looks like a fantastic draft pick. He did miss time early in the 2015 season with forearm tightness/soreness/discomfort/whatever, which at the time was both scary and felt like no big surprise, but since then he hasn’t had any arm injuries. A broken wrist fielding in spring training 2016, and a bout of back tightness last year, but nothing arm-related. Even better, Weaver’s stuff has rebounded right to where it was as a sophomore at Florida State, as he regularly pops 96 and 97 mph gun readings with his fastball, and his changeup is as deadly as ever. He’s also built on that foundation, coming up with a usable curve and a pretty decent cutter to complement the fastball-change combo. Neither of those are great pitches, but they don’t have to be. They just have to play off the really good stuff.

At this moment, Weaver is well on his way to being one of the best young starters in the game, and that statement is very, very conservative on my part. So long as Weaver stays healthy, which is obviously a big if with any pitcher, not just him, he was an absolute steal at 27th overall.

So let’s jump forward two years from Weaver’s draft class. We’re in 2016 now, and the Cardinals have just spent a high-ish (though not as high as Weaver), draft pick on a college righthander.

You already know it’s Connor Jones, obviously, so let’s not beat around the bush. Jones was a solid draft prospect coming out of high school; better than Weaver overall, truth be told. He was a hard-throwing righty with a prototypical pitcher’s build at 6’3” and about 185 pounds at the time. Still, a strong commitment to the University of Virginia kept him from being drafted too high, and he headed off to college.

As a freshman, Jones worked primarily out of the bullpen for Virginia, and he was really good. He threw 54.2 innings, struck out 40 batters, walked 23, and posted a 3.13 ERA. The peripherals, in terms of strikeout to walk ratio and the like, weren’t amazing, but this was a freshman more than holding his own in the ACC, which I believe we’ve already established is a very strong conference. Jones was also known already for being an extreme groundball pitcher, which helped him beat his fielding-independent type numbers.

Then came Jones’s sophomore season, when he really put himself on the national map as a big-time prospect. Working as a starter, he threw 115.2 innings, and struck out nearly a batter per inning, with 113 strikeouts. The walks were a little high at 52, but a big part of that was the fact Jones’s stuff was just so good he couldn’t always control it well. He allowed just 94 hits, and was basically impossible to get the ball into the air against.

As a sophomore, Jones had incredible stuff. He worked from 92 up to 96 with his fastball, and had tremendous running life on the pitch. He would work a four-seamer up in the zone and his signature two-seamer down, with the latter coming in at 91-94 and eliciting that old classic chestnut of the bowling ball sinker. He complemented the fastballs with a nasty, tight curveball that sometimes looked more like a slider, and a really solid fading changeup that he could put on the corner down and away from a lefty to get an easy rollover grounder to second base whenever he needed. Connor Jones as a sophomore looked like a virtual lock for the top ten to fifteen picks in the draft.

To give an idea of just how good Jones’s stuff was as a sophomore, here he is pitching in the College World Series of 2015:

So...yeah. He was really something that year.

And then came his junior season. Now, the results for Jones in 2016 were just fine; in fact, he actually posted a better ERA than he had his sophomore year, at 2.34. That was the good news. The bad news was, well, most of the other stuff. He threw 103.2 innings in 2016, and while he managed to keep his walks (38), and hits (85), down, his strikeout rate fell off a cliff, dropping from nearly one per inning to just 6.25 K/9, or 72 total strikeouts on the season. He generated tons of grounders once again, the primary vector for him keeping his runs allowed down, but he was no longer missing bats.

Worse yet, it was obvious why he was no longer missing bats, as his stuff took a nosedive. He went from topping out at 96, occasionally 97, to about 94. He moved away from the four-seamer, leaning more heavily on the sinker, which sat around 90-91 most of the spring. His breaking ball lost its depth and became more of a true slider, and the changeup regressed. His arm speed seemed to be deteriorating. Sound familiar?

The lack of stuff really pushed Jones down in the 2016 draft; he went from a top half of the first round guy to one of the last picks in the second. Still, that’s not a bad place to be drafted; the 70th overall pick is still pretty rarified company in the grand scheme of things. Still, even at 70, I was not a fan of the Connor Jones pick. I saw a guy with a risky arm action and declining stuff who no longer had much swing and miss in his arsenal. The trend line was scary, as he had gotten so much worse from 2015 to ‘16, and I just didn’t think he was going to hold up and be healthy, or else be so good you didn’t mind the health concerns.

Coming out of college in 2016, Jones pitched briefly with the Gulf Coast League affiliate, then moved up to State College. It was less than 15 innings total, and he was fine. In a sample that small, unless a guy literally bursts into flames you don’t really pay much attention. When 2017 rolled around, though, we got a look at Connor Jones as a professional pitcher, and it wasn’t pretty. He pitched primarily at Palm Beach in the Florida State League (High A), and threw 113 innings there. His ERA was okay, at 3.97 (not great, but okay), but he struck out just 76 batters, walked 49, and allowed 120 hits. The good news was his groundball rate was insane, at 68.4%, but he didn’t miss bats, and hitters made hard contact against him, even if it was mostly on the ground. He did move up to Springfield late in the year for one start, and it was one start.

This season, Jones is at Springfield again, and he’s thrown 10 innings in two starts. He’s struck out five hitters, walked eight, and allowed eleven hits. So not great, Bob.

Last year, Jones worked at 90-91 with his sinker. He almost never throws the four-seamer anymore. His slider is bad, and his changeup is bad. He no longer has the arm speed to snap off a great breaking ball, and he’s basically relying entirely on pitching to groundball contact at this point. His command isn’t good enough to get away with it, though, at least not at the higher levels, I don’t believe.

So what we have is two pitchers, both with remarkably similar career trajectories through college. Both were brilliant as sophomores, then saw their stuff back up as juniors, though both managed to hold it together and put up good results. I disliked both picks, for similar reasons. You had bad trend lines, risky arm actions, declining stuff, and other assorted red flags all over the place.

The difference is this: one of the two saw his stuff rebound, built on that foundation, and is now settling in as about a number two starter in the big leagues. He had one arm injury scare, but since then hasn’t had any issues. The other pitcher has seen his stuff continue to decline, and while he hasn’t had an arm injury, he no longer looks anything like the dynamic arm talent he was a sophomore at Virginia.

So what was the difference?

Well, honestly, I have no idea. I know that’s a shitty conclusion to this column, but I really don’t. I have no clue what separates Luke Weaver from Connor Jones, and why one guy’s stuff came back while the other’s is still slipping. I wish I did know, but I don’t. Maybe that means there’s still hope for Jones to turn it around. Maybe that means Luke Weaver has concerns we aren’t seeing currently. Or maybe it just means that scouting is really hard, and sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t.

So I present this to you not as a parable, or a compare and contrast exercise in what makes one player successful, and the other not. Rather, I present it as an object lesson that, while I always felt TINSTAAPP went too far, there is a kernel of truth in its dogma, and in all the skepticism people have toward prospects, toward future assets in general. Maybe some of you have thoughts on why Weaver turned his arrow upward, while Jones seems to be slowly sinking further and further. If so, I’d love to hear them.

Connor Jones and Luke Weaver were, for a very long time and in some really intriguing ways, the same pitcher. Right up until the moment they weren’t, of course. And I don’t know why. Which, no, is not a satisfying answer. But it’s the only one I’ve got.