As we all saw last night, Jered Weaver returned to action for the Angels and he was back in more than just his mere presence. Weaver dominated the Dodgers through six innings, racking up seven strikeouts in the process. It was a tantalizing performance indeed. But it wasn't the end result that is piqued my interest but rather how he went about doing it.
It only took four pitches for Weaver to flash what we hadn't seen from him in some time. That would be the 91 MPH fastball he used to blow away Carl Crawford. For most pitchers 91 MPH is nothing to brag about, but for Jered, it was a minor miracle considering he had not touched 91 MPH, much less broken 90 MPH, since a start on September 23rd, 2012. There were only four starts in between due to the off-season, but the velocity dropped further and further in each game despite the layoff. The low came in his previous start where he never even hi 89 MPH before he inadvertently broke his non-throwing elbow.
Now almost two months later, Weaver is back to his old self, sort of. That 91 MPH pitch was the only pitch that high on the radar gun and he didn't touch 90 MPH again after the first inning. What he did though was consistently work at 88 and 89 MPH with his heater averaging out to 88.16 MPH on the night. That is two full MPH more than he averaged in his final start before his injury. Most encouraging of all, his final fastball of the night was measure at 88 MPH, so he was able to hold the velocity despite not having built the kind of arm strength he normally would have at this point of the season.
So, how did he do it?
There were a few notable differences between Weaver's last night and Weaver back in April. First and foremost, Weaver was obviously coming off a lot of rest since he had to sit idle with his broken left elbow. That could explain the velocity spike, but we didn't see a similar effect after Weaver had a whole off-season to rest up. What we do know about Weaver when his velocity started to dip late last season was that he was plagued by tendinitis in his biceps. The Angels led us to believe that this cleared up over the winter, but perhaps it didn't. For reasons that the team never fully explained, Weaver ended up needing eight weeks to recover from his broken elbow even though the original prognosis suggested he'd miss between four and six weeks. It is almost like he was nursing an injury to his pitching arm as well only the team never told us. They would never do that, right?
I mean, it isn't like C.J. Wilson pitched half of 2012 with bone chips in his elbow but the Angels kept it quiet until after the season? Oh, wait.
Another bout of tendinitis would surely explain away his struggles, but that is just speculation on my part. Putting aside that theory, there are still other factors that may have played a role in the resurgence of Weaver's fastball.
Before the season when we were all wringing our hands over Weaver's lost velocity, one thing that Jered himself pointed out was that he had over time begun throwing from a more over the top arm slot. The Pitch f/x data most definitely bears that out. However, despite his promise to drop back down to his more natural three-quarters arm slot where he thought he could recover the velocity, Jered did no such thing in his first two starts. Why? It is hard to say, though it could be because Weaver said he had moved his release point higher to ease the tightness in his shoulder and he might still have been suffering shoulder tightness when the season began. Shoulder tightness or no, Weaver came back last night with a release point that was several inches lower.
Here we see Weaver's release points from his last start before getting hurt (via Brooks Baseball):
And now from his start last night (again via Brooks Baseball):
While the difference isn't massive, it is certainly noticeable. Considering that Weaver himself has believed his arm slot to be a reason behind his declining velocity, it seems pretty reasonable to assume that this was very much an adjustment Jered made intentionally and with the specific purpose of recovering a few MPH on his fastball. Through one game at least, mission accomplished.
There is one smaller factor at play here that is at least worth keeping in the back of our minds. That would be the fact that Weaver did not throw a single cut fastball on Wednesday night. That is another major change in approach for Weaver who had become increasingly reliant on the cutter as his velocity dropped. According to his pitch usage stats, it would seem that Jered had been throwing the cutter in place of his four-seamer, presumably because he knew he couldn't throw an 86 MPH four-seamer passed anyone. But with his four-seamer revived last night, the cutter was nowhere to be found, at least according to Pitch f/x classification. That probably isn't a coincidence.
Also of note is that some pitching coaches believe the cutter can actually have an adverse effect on the overall velocity of a pitcher. Maybe Weaver scrapped the pitch because of that fear or maybe he just didn't feel like he needed it because he was rolling through the Dodger lineup, no-hitting them through four innings. The cutter is probably a much lesser factor than injury and arm slot, but it will be interesting to see if he starts working it back into his repertoire over the rest of the season.
All in all, it was a very encouraging night for Weaver. If anything, we should only see his velocity tick up higher once he gets his endurance built back up as it is normal for pitchers to see an increase in velocity after their first few starts of the season. It may be late May but this is functionally the start of Weaver's season thanks to his eight-week layoff. Velocity isn't everything for a pitcher like Weaver, but it sure makes life a lot easier than trying to be an ace caliber pitcher who throws only 86 MPH.