Ryan Weathers Helps Padres Dodge Some Gloom

When the Padres stockpiled starting pitching and mapped out their season, they probably didn’t count on Ryan Weathers playing the stopper. Yet in a rotation with a former Cy Young winner, a four-time All-Star, and the author of the season’s first no-hitter, it was the 21-year-old southpaw — the majors’ youngest starting pitcher — who helped the Pad Squad turn the page on a 2-7 slide, a three-game losing streak, and some sobering injury news with 5.2 innings of one-hit shutout ball against the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine on Thursday night, part of a 3-2 win.

Making just the second start of his career, and matched up against Walker Buehler for the second time in six days, Weathers kept the Dodgers off balance with an effectively wild four-seam fastball/slider combo, mixing in the occasional sinker and changeup. While his low-spin four-seamer averaged a comparatively modest 93.7 mph and topped out at 95.9 mph, its exceptional horizontal movement helped him rack up 15 called strikes and four whiffs for a 41% CSW on that pitch, and an overall 33% CSW for the night.

Weathers threw 39 pitches in the first two innings, walking leadoff hitter Mookie Betts and plunking Max Muncy to start the second, but striking out Corey Seager, Sheldon Neuse, and Luke Raley along the way. The lone hit he gave up a sharp single to Buehler to start the third inning, but he got his pitch count in order by using just eight pitches to retire Betts, Seager, and Turner to begin his second time through the order, kicking off a run of 11 straight Dodgers he retired before departing in the sixth with a 2-0 lead.

Los Angeles tied the game in the seventh via back-to-back homers by AJ Pollock and Neuse against Emilio Pagán, but squandered one-out, runner-in-scoring-position situations in both the seventh and eighth against Nabil Crismatt and Tim Hill. The Padres’ offense scratched out the decisive run in the eighth against Blake Treinen, evening the season series at two games apiece.

Including a major league debut that he made in the Division Series last year, Weathers — the seventh pick of the 2018 draft, and the son of David Weathers, a durable reliever who spent 19 years in the majors and ranks 19th all-time in appearances (964) — has thrown 16.2 innings in the bigs and allowed just four hits, seven walks and one run while striking out 16. The bulk of that work, 10.2 innings, has come against the potent Dodger lineup, which he’s held to two hits and five walks while striking out 10. In last Friday’s wild four-hour, 57-minute game, Weathers shut the Dodgers out for 3.2 frames, an effort that was overshadowed by the 12th-inning proceedings, which included a Seager homer, a sacrifice fly by David Price, a Musgrove appearance in left field, and a pitching stint by Jake Cronenworth, all amid a five-run 12th inning.

Admittedly, the defending champion Dodgers entered Thursday’s game in something of a funk. Without Cody Bellinger, with a banged-up Betts, and with both Chris Taylor and Zach McKinstry scratched from the lineup due to lower back stiffness (hence the presences of both Neuse and Raley), they’d hit just .109/.215/.218 over their previous four games, with 13 hits and eight runs. Nonetheless, Weathers’ performance was still a big-time one, particularly in the context of the week the Padres have had.

For all of the lofty projections that preceded its season, San Diego entered this week’s four-game series with the Dodgers battered and bruised themselves, with just a 10-10 record that included a 1-5 homestand capped by a three-game sweep by the Brewers, knocking them five games behind the 14-4 Dodgers. Fernando Tatis Jr. is slumping amid concerns about his left shoulder, Adrian Morejon was just lost to Tommy John surgery, and Dinelson Lamet left his season debut on Wednesday after just 29 pitches due to forearm tightness, which itself all too often stands as a milepost on the way to Tommy John surgery. That bout of forearm tightness is of particular concern given that the 28-year-old righty already underwent TJS in April 2018 and ended last year’s breakout campaign with a strained ulnar collateral ligament, costing him a chance to pitch in the postseason.

Lamet, who placed third in the league in ERA (2.09), FIP (2.48), strikeout rate (34.8%), strikeout-walk differential (27.3%) and WAR (2.5), tied with winner Trevor Bauer), left his final regular season start on September 25 with tightness in his biceps. Diagnosed with a UCL strain, he underwent platelet-rich plasma therapy in October and was brought along slowly during the spring, throwing short stints in simulated games but not making his Cactus League debut until March 24. He wasn’t stretched out enough to start the season on the Padres’ roster, but built up his pitch count at the team’s alternate training site in Peoria, Arizona. After throwing a 75-pitch simulated game on April 15, he was cleared to make his season debut on Wednesday against the Brewers.

With his four-seam fastball averaging 96.1 mph and his slider generating seven swings and misses, Lamet pitched two scoreless innings, working around a leadoff single by Jackie Bradley Jr. to strike out the next three hitters on a total of 11 pitches. But after retiring the first two batters to start the second, he began laboring, missing above the zone and walking Daniel Robertson then throwing a wild pitch. He escaped the inning by striking out opposite number Adrian Houser, but tightness in his forearm prevented him from returning for the third; instead he headed to the trainers’ room.

The specifics differ but Lamet’s start-stop saga vaguely recalled that of Mike Clevinger, who pitched just one regular season inning after September 13 due to elbow impingement but was given the green light to start the Padres’ Division Series opener against the Dodgers. He lasted just one inning in that one, and six weeks later underwent his Tommy John surgery.

On Thursday, the Padres placed Lamet on the injured list, but they sounded cautiously optimistic that he caught the injury before serious damage took place, and believe that he’ll avoid becoming the 11th pitcher in the organization to undergo Tommy John surgery since last March, a list that includes Andres Muñoz, Luis Perdomo, José Castillo, and Michel Baez as well as Clevinger and Morejon. Via the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kevin Acee:

An ultrasound Wednesday revealed no troublesome inflammation, and no MRI is planned. Lamet’s elbow has been imaged and examined several times since the end of last season. According to several sources, Lamet has passed every test from the time he began throwing in December and never reported any discomfort while working in spring training or pitching in alternate site games. He reached almost 98 mph on multiple pitches Monday, and his slider moved as usual. He reported tightness — not pain — after recording his fourth strikeout to end the second inning.

The Padres rebuilt their rotation this past winter without being overly reliant upon Lamet. In hopes of capitalizing on their well-stocked farm system and a chance to go toe-to-toe with the Dodgers, they made high-profile trades for Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Musgrove, and on that front they’ve been rewarded thus far. The rotation owns a 2.34 ERA, the NL’s second-best behind the Corbin Burnes-driven Brewers’ 1.99; they’re also second in the league in strikeout rate (30.8%), third in strikeout-walk differential (22.8%) and WAR (2.4), and fourth in FIP (3.14) — all despite 10 of the team’s 21 starts lasting less than five innings. Musgrove threw the first no-hitter in franchise history on April 9 and ranks fourth in the league with a 1.04 ERA, tied for fifth with 0.9 WAR, and seventh with a 2.21 FIP. Darvish ranks ninth in the league with a 29.8% strikeout rate and eighth with a 24.5% strikeout-walk differential while placing among the league’s top 20 with his 2.55 ERA, 3.13 FIP, and 0.6 WAR.

Snell, on the other hand, hasn’t quite hit his stride. He’s walked a gaudy 14.3% of hitters, and has pitched no more than five innings in any of his four starts, including an April 14 turn in which he failed to get out of the first inning against the Pirates. He did rebound from that with his best outing of the season, a five-inning, two-run, seven-strikeout performance against the Dodgers opposite Bauer on Sunday, and his teammates rallied to win that one and prevent a series sweep.

Given the free agent departure of Garrett Richards, the trade of Zach Davies, and the losses of Clevinger, Lamet, and Morejon, a 22-year-old Cuban lefty whose eight career starts have generally been of the opener variety, with only one lasting longer than 11 batters, it’s Chris Paddack who has been flying the flag as the lone holdover from last year’s rotation. The 25-year-old righty is still trying to recover the form from his outstanding 2019 rookie season. While his 3.50 ERA, 3.09 FIP and Statcast numbers all suggest that he’s doing so through his first four starts, he’s allowed seven unearned runs to go with his seven earned ones, and both his 21.0% strikeout rate and 8.6% walk rate are a far cry from his rookie numbers (26.9% and 5.5%, respectively). He has yet to develop a reliable third pitch, and as Jake Mailhot wrote recently, his four-seam fastball is moving more like a two-seamer, making it more generic and less special.

The absences of Lamet and Morejon led the Padres to turn to Weathers, but there’s more where that came from. Waiting in the wings at the alternate training site, and likely bound for Triple-A El Paso soon, is 22-year-old lefty MacKenzie Gore, the third pick of the 2017 draft and the number two prospect on our Top 100 list this spring. The team still believes that Lamet will be back sooner rather than later — “[I]f everything goes well, we’re going to shoot for him to make the start after the 10 days are up,” said manager Jayce Tingler before Thursday’s game — but like every other team, the Padres are going to need all the depth they can muster to get through the 162-game season. In Weathers, they’ve found an important piece to help them, um, ride out the injuries.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Bartolo Cologne
1 year ago

It’s been a rough few days as a Padres fan, although I was recently reminded that they started last year 11-12 before putting up the second-best win record in the NL (and that was with a much shorter season to turn things around).

Weathers has looked composed even when getting himself into a little bit of trouble with control and I’ve been encouraged to see that despite his young age the moment hasn’t seemed too big for him. Silencing an offense as good as the Dodgers twice in one week is a statement for any pitcher. His stuff clearly plays, although the next few months will tell a lot as he gets stretched out and hitters start making adjustments.