Jered Weaver went 16-8 in 2009, but in a certain sense, he was a pretty average pitcher. For those familiar with the flaws in pitcher wins as a telling statistic, this is no special revelation: A pitcher can win 20 games and not be that good.
Weaver had the tools to be great, but he could not quite put it all together. His four-pitch mix (fastball, slider, curve and change-up) kept batters off-balance, but he proved unable to consistently miss bats or keep the ball on the ground with any special proficiency. At age 26, he seemed to have topped out as a second starter with no special tendency toward dominance.
Meanwhile, halfway across the country, a younger pitcher of similar skills went 13-12. Yet, in a certain sense, Yovani Gallardo was better than Weaver in 2009. Gallardo had a better ground-ball rate and strikeout rate, and was less dependent upon his defense than Weaver.
Weaver took off in 2010, though. He discovered a remarkably useful and different way to use his curveball, throwing it up in the zone more and getting outs and strikes on it almost every time. His ground-ball rate improved, but not as much as his plate discipline numbers. He became a dominant pitcher, one of the American League’s five best,
Gallardo had a great year, too, but the results were not what he might have expected. he posted a worse ERA in 2010 than in 2009, and he battled injuries. He made no similar strides in missing bats.
Ah, but Gallardo has youth on his side. he will be only 25 next season, and has pitched one fewer season in the big leagues than Weaver. The two are similar enough: relatively neutral batted-ball tendencies, strikeouts galore (although how they each do it is interesting) from a right-handed pitcher. So let’s see what Weaver can tell us about Gallardo.
2009 stats: 211.0 IP, 7.42 SO/9 IP, 2.82 BB/9 IP, 1.11 HR/9 IP, 3.75 ERA, 4.04 FIP
2010 stats: 224.1 IP, 9.35 SO/9 IP, 2.17 BB/9 IP, 0.92 HR/9 IP, 3.01 ERA, 3.06 FIP
I have supplied Weaver’s numbers for the past two years in order to demonstrate the massive improvement he made from 2009 to 2010. Now, let’s look at how he did it.
First of all, Weaver allowed much less solid contact this season than he previously had. His ground-ball rate increased from 30.9 percent to 36.0 percent, but his line drive rate also dropped from 18.7 percent to 15.8. That allowed him to keep more balls in the park.
More tellingly, though, Weaver suddenly figured out how to avoid contact altogether. His chase rate (the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone at which hitters swung) leaped from a pedestrian 25.2 percent to a stellar 33.5 percent–seventh in baseball. His overall swinging strike rate jumped from 9.6 percent to 11.2 percent–fourth-best in the league.
He accomplished it all by going to his curve and slider more often, keeping hitters off-balance. Learning to pitch, rather than just throw, made Weaver elite.
2010 stats: 185.0 IP, 9.73 SO/9 IP, 3.65 BB/9 IP, 0.58 HR/9 IP, 3.84 ERA, 3.02 FIP
Gallardo has a lot of the same problems Weaver used to have. He induced swings at less than one-quarter of his pitches outside the zone, second-worst in the league. He also had a mediocre 8.4 percent swinging strike rate. He still managed to rack up the strikeouts, but his inability to get them with empty swings inflated his pitch counts and walk totals.
Gallardo already makes liberal use of his curve and slider, each of which is an above-average pitch. The problem is that Gallardo has still not developed confidence in his change-up, the missing ingredient to keep batters off his pitches. He has superior stuff to Weaver, and darn near everyone else. He just needs to mix his pitches better. Gallardo could easily take the next step in 2011 and become an elite National League starter.