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Angels opening day starter Jered Weaver grows into ace role

Angels ace Jered Weaver rebounded from a shoulder injury and a couple of mediocre seasons to lead the majors in strikeouts in 2010. Entering 2011, he's one of baseball's best pitchers.

March 26, 2011|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • Angels starting pitcher Jered Weaver signs autographs before a spring training game against the Oakland Athletics last month in Tempe, Ariz.
Angels starting pitcher Jered Weaver signs autographs before a spring… (Mark Duncan / Associated…)

Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. — Success seemed to come easily for Jered Weaver in 2006, when he went 9-0 to start his big-league career, finished with an 11-2 record and 2.56 earned run average and held opponents to a meager .209 batting average.

So when then-teammate John Lackey began harping on him to increase the intensity of his workouts between starts, Weaver all but ignored him.

Who needs direction from a more experienced pitcher when you're rolling through the American League as if it were the Big West Conference?

"I was probably just thick-headed, young and dumb," Weaver, now 28, said of his early years. "You come in, you have success, and you think you're on top of the world."

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The world knocked Weaver off that pedestal. Slowed by a shoulder injury in 2007, the right-hander went 13-7 with a 3.91 ERA, opponents hitting a robust .280. He slipped again to 11-10 with a 4.33 ERA in 2008.

At that point, the former Long Beach State star figured it was time to tune in to the big Texan. Though he is a lean-and-lanky 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds, Weaver fit nicely under Lackey's wing.

"My first couple years, he was all over me, trying to get me in the weight room," Weaver said. "I'd do it here and there, but I wasn't consistent with it. John was the big guy in the clubhouse. I finally started listening to him."

"The day you start, I've come to realize, is the easiest day. The hardest days are in between starts."

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Improved work ethic — combined with the refinement of his off-speed pitches, overall command and deception, and knowledge of hitters — has helped Weaver develop into one of baseball's best pitchers entering the 2011 season.

After going 16-8 with a 3.75 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 2009, Weaver went 13-12 with a 3.01 ERA and a major league-leading 233 strikeouts in 2010, his record sagging because the Angels scored two runs or fewer in 12 of his 34 starts.

"He's evolved into a lead-dog-of-the-rotation type of guy," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's not intimidated by any situation. He understands his stuff better as he's gotten older."

That Weaver is an ace is not surprising. He was the 12th overall pick of the 2004 draft and signed for $4 million, the largest bonus ever awarded by the Angels.

That he led the big leagues in strikeouts last season was a bit of a shocker.

Weaver's fastball sits in the 91-mph range and tops out at about 93 mph, hardly overpowering. His curve and slider are very good but not nasty. His changeup is excellent, but no one compares it to Trevor Hoffman's.

"In college, it seemed every time he picked up a ball he'd strike out the first nine guys, so you knew the punch-out was part of his game," Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "But to be honest, I never thought he'd lead the major leagues in strikeouts."

Weaver threw harder at Long Beach, his fastball hitting 96 mph, electric stuff that helped him whiff the first 10 batters of games twice in his junior season, against USC and Brigham Young.

"That was amazing, phenomenal," recalled Long Beach State Coach Troy Buckley, the 49ers' pitching coach in 2004. "I should have framed those scorecards."

The K rations weren't as plentiful in the big leagues. Weaver struck out 105 in 123 innings as a rookie for a decent average of 7.68 per nine innings, but he didn't have much of a put-away pitch in 2007-08.

He'd often get to two strikes and give up foul balls in bunches, driving up his pitch counts. He'd usually reach 100 pitches in the fifth or sixth inning and averaged only 52/3 innings a start, with nine-inning strikeout averages of 6.43 in 2007 and 7.74 in 2008.

But in the middle of 2009, Weaver added a two-seam fastball that tails down and away to left-handed hitters, a pitch he throws to both sides of the plate. He always had a good slider, but he gained more confidence in his changeup and slow curve.

Though his 174 strikeouts in 211 innings was an average of only 7.42 per nine innings, Weaver used his two-seam fastball to turn what had been foul balls into ground-ball outs. More efficient with his pitches, Weaver boosted his innings-per-start average to 61/3.

Then, last season, Weaver began changing speeds on his fastball, keeping the same arm speed but manipulating his grip so the pitch would come in anywhere from 79 to 92 mph.

Weaver's lanky frame and across-the-body motion have always helped him hide the ball well. As he mastered the art of setting up hitters, he kept them off balance with pinpoint control of his fastball and his vast off-speed repertoire.

Instead of trying to blow a fastball by hitters with two strikes, he'd fool them with slow, looping curves and soft changeups.

"I just have a better grasp and feel for pitching, knowing hitters better and how to get them out," Weaver said. "There's a way to get everyone out; you just have to find out how."

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