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Angels' Jered Weaver isn't setting any speed traps

Right-hander, who gives up two hits and one run over six innings against Cincinnati in opener, doesn't throw that hard anymore but baffles hitters with deception and pinpoint control.

April 02, 2013|By Bill Shaikin, Los Angeles Times

CINCINNATI — — Of all the numbers dotted on a scorecard and drizzled around its margins as opening day extended into opening night, the most compelling number for the Angels might be this one:

Number of times Jered Weaver hit 90 mph: zero.

There might be no pitcher in the major leagues more crucial to the fortunes of his team. There might be no radar gun readings more unsettling that the ones at Great American Ball Park on Monday, the ones that tracked Weaver's fastball most often in the range of 84-87 mph.

What matters most is getting outs, and Weaver got them. He gave up two hits over the first six innings of a game that lasted 13. The Angels won, 3-1, catching the Houston Astros atop the American League West.

For the first six years of his career, Weaver's fastball held steady at 89-90 mph, according to Fangraphs. His average fastball velocity dropped to 87.8 mph last season, and Monday he touched 89 mph only three times on the ballpark radar gun.

Off the record, the Angels weren't buying the radar readings. A couple of ticks slow, they scoffed. Aroldis Chapman, the Cincinnati Reds' missile-throwing closer, didn't even hit 100 mph on the ballpark gun Monday.

On the record, the Angels strongly supported Weaver, dismissing concerns about how effectively he might pitch with diminished velocity by pointing out that he already did it, and quite well at that.

"I've kind of figured out high velocity is not there too much any more," Weaver said.

This is what was there last season: his name atop the league leaderboard, and all over it — fewest hits per nine innings, fewest hits and walks combined per nine innings, lowest opponent batting average, best winning percentage.

This, too, is what was there last season: a pitcher with the slowest fastball of his career throwing more fastballs than ever. Weaver threw a fastball a career-high 62% of the time, according to Fangraphs.

Less velocity, more smarts, the way Weaver figures it. If batters figure slower fastballs mean fewer of them, he is more than happy to fire away.

"I try to out-think my opponent," Weaver said. "I take a lot of pride in that."

Weaver confounds the statistical analysts, the ones who cherish strikeouts above all else and who scratch their heads when the Angels turn more batted balls into outs behind Weaver than they supposedly should, year after year.

With a funky delivery that hampers the batter's ability to pick up the flight of the ball, and with pinpoint precision on his pitches, Weaver is less about getting opponents to miss the ball than to mis-hit the ball. An out is an out, strike out or ground out or fly out.

There is little margin for error with an 88-mph fastball, even less at 86 mph. That demands the finest in fastball command, because even an inch off your target can mean disaster.

On Monday, when Manager Mike Scioscia said Weaver's fastball command was "wavering," Weaver needed 63 pitches for the first three innings. The Reds had a runner in scoring position every inning.

He went three more innings, on 32 pitches — nine up, nine down. He had harnessed all his pitches. When he does, catcher Chris Iannetta said, "It doesn't matter if he throws 95 or 75."

The Angels won their opener in unlikely fashion, with one hit in 14 at-bats from Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, with seven innings of one-hit relief from a bullpen perceived as a weak spot. By the time reporters got to Weaver in the clubhouse more than five hours after the game started he was mildly surprised.

"I didn't know if you remembered I pitched or not," he said, jokingly.

He is the one guy in the Angels' rotation likely to go seven innings more often than not, to save the bullpen from overexposure. He is the ace, at any speed.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillShaikin

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