Baseball is like one big reference book. The veterans that fill the landscape have knowledge born of their experience, you just have to ask. Luke Weaver in St. Louis has been asking, and that inquisitiveness has benefited his game in ways that aren’t obvious. Command, deception, new pitches — the veterans around him have given him many presents.
Once people swing at Weaver’s four-seamer, they miss nearly a quarter of the time. That’s the 19th-best rate among starting pitchers who’ve thrown 200 four-seamers this year — this, despite a fastball that’s average in nearly every respect — horizontal movement, vertical movement, velocity and spin.
I asked him why that was. “I think maybe it’s deception, in a way,” Weaver told me before a recent game against the Giants. “I get pretty low. When I’m driving, my back knee is almost touching the ground. [From a] side angle, you can see it.”
Take a look:
Weaver is in the bottom 9% of release points this year, surrounded mostly by pitchers who either feature lower arm slots (Sean Manaea and Carlos Martinez) or who are four or five inches shorter (like Ryan Dull and Kirby Yates).
“I get really low. When I throw it, the ball seems kind of like it’s rising because I get underneath it [unlike] guys that throw on a downward plane,” Weaver explained. “It’s an illusion. I’m coming from the ground up.”
And did Tim Leveque, a ten-year coaching veteran in the Cardinals organization and the current pitching coordinator, ever try to coach that out of him? The opposite, actually. Turns out his organization loved his drop-and-drive approach. “Over time I’ve gotten even lower, using more of my legs,” said Weaver.
As you might surmise from his answers, Weaver’s ability to deceive batters with his delivery would be rendered moot if he didn’t complement it with command. He has to throw higher in the zone to take advantage of his low release point. Command is hugely important to Weaver, in two distinct ways.
“[I] have to be able to command it early in the game to allow them to know I’m going to hit these spots [and they] have to swing,” said Weaver. Take a look at his fastball heat maps, and you’ll notice something that Joe Schwarz of The Intrepid STL observed when examining Weaver’s approach recently: Weaver is great at hitting the inside corner to righties and keeping the ball up.
And then you’ll also notice that he’s great both at avoiding the middle and stretching the zone. After you let them know you’re going to hit the spots, you have to “be able to miss in the right direction,” said Weaver. “Throw balls that look like strikes and strikes that look like balls.”
For Weaver, deception is nothing without command, and command is nothing without deception. Neither is good without good pitches, so it might not surprise you at all that a new pitch — taught to Weaver by Lance Lynn, Mike Leake, and Seth Maness as a group — helps him both command the ball and deceive the batter.
We’ve seen this before, from Joe Musgrove, but it’s not a pitch that we classify. So we have to try and find it in the movement numbers of his fastballs. “The goal is to get that one-seam in between… [W]hen it’s rolling, it has that one seam in between that you’re seeing,” Weaver said, “and it gets some sinker action down.”
Here are all of his fastballs, mapped by velocity (color), movement (x,y), and spin (size of the mark).
Looks like the blue 88-90 mph pitches with more drop are his one-seamers. He confirmed that he throws it often — to lefties on the outside and in ground-ball counts.
Having multiple fastballs is great, and Weaver has that good change — 36th in whiff rates (100 min) and second overall in ground-ball rate (78%) — but every additional pitch counts.
So Weaver’s been working on a curve to pair with his high fastball. “That pitch is something that’s new to me,” he said. “It’s a pitch that I’ve struggled with because I’m kind of three-quarters. My body sometimes wants to release that ball too early and then it kind of pops up and spins. You just have to make sure to stay over it with your body.”
Take a look at how good it can be:
Overall, the numbers are mixed. It’s in the top quartile when it comes to velocity, but in the bottom fifth on drop. When it’s good, it has more bite, and he’s working on the pitch with the help of someone with a famous curveball: Adam Wainwright.
“The curve is a pitch I’m transitioning, I’m trying to use it in more aggressive ways,” Weaver said. “At first I was just trying to steal some strikes and get ahead, get it over the plate. Now I’m working that into how can I make this into a strikeout pitch. So I’m talking to Wainwright about what he’s doing in certain counts to make that an effective pitch.”
If that pitch evolves into what it can be, Weaver will have four legit weapons, each useful in its own way. Together, they’ll also add deception, command, and surprise, which will help the whole thing gel well.
And it’s all thanks to the people around him.
“I just heard these guys talking and had to learn more,” said the 24-year-old right-hander. “They’re always talking about something. There’s always a pitch we’re having trouble with, and there’s just a little bit of a turn or something they can show you.”
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.