Losing Alex Reyes for the season is a tough blow for the Cardinals, but Luke Weaver will do just fine taking his place.
Just one week ago, people were talking about Alex Reyes as the frontrunner for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Once the bad news that Reyes needed Tommy John Surgery broke, all of that optimism went out the window. It stinks for the Cardinals that their 22 year-old fireballer won’t pitch this year, but Reyes’s injury does not mean it will all be terrible for the Cardinals. Luke Weaver made an encouraging debut in 2016, and he shows reasons for optimism, too.
Weaver didn’t come with anywhere near the amount of hype that Reyes did, but he was a 1st round pick in 2014. Weaver also started his 2016 season late due to injury, so there was a delay in analyzing his potential. Nevertheless, Weaver impressed at each level throughout the minors while showing pinpoint control. Many fans (rightfully so) worry about Reyes’s control issues. However, the opposite effect didn’t really take place for Weaver.
Weaver walked just over 1.62 batters per 9 innings in over 200 minor league frames. For some reason, we tend to get much more worried about poor control than we do get excited about great control. Weaver falls into that latter category. Despite being a 1st round selection, it took Weaver until midway through 2016 to find a place on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list. The only thing Weaver had not yet done was pitch a lot of innings.
The Sample Size Issue
I think what scares most people about Weaver is his small sample size to this point. As previously mentioned, he only pitched a little more than 200 innings in the minor leagues. His lone stint at AAA includes all of one start and six innings. For reference, Alex Reyes pitched nearly 350 minor league innings, with 65.1 of those at AAA. However, I do not see Weaver’s lack of experience as a reason for lack of optimism. What little experience he does have has been very good.
To begin with, Weaver is 23 years old. More time in the minors probably just wastes more of his prime, at this point. Secondly, ignore the ERA in the majors; that number is not at all indicative of how he really pitched. Weaver’s ERA is inflated by two things: poor fielding and poor fly ball luck.
— Kevin Wheeler Show (@WheelerShow101) February 15, 2017
As for the poor fielding, opponents hit .290 on ground balls against Weaver compared to a league average of .239. This happened despite the fact that Weaver gave up a hard hit rate below league average on grounders. Many of those hits would have evaporated with just a better defense behind Weaver. In total, Weaver gave up a BABIP of .386, which was 34 points higher than the league highest BABIP among qualified pitchers. Even if Weaver pitches poorly, his BABIP against will come down.
Regarding fly ball luck, the major league average HR/FB rate was just below 13 percent last season. Weaver’s HR/FB was an astronomical 21.2 percent. Given the history of regression to the mean in this category, Weaver’s HR/FB rate should go back to league average in 2017. Many see Weaver’s small sample size as a reason for pessimism. In this case, I actually think the small sample size just adds to the idea that his time in the majors was not as bad as it looks.
Since we can throw out the ERA from those 36.1 major league innings, the rest looks really good. Weaver kept an FIP below 2.50 in the minors, which suggests that he has really good command of the strike zone. Although this is an unfair comparison, Reyes was a little closer to 3. Reyes has the hype and more potential, but Weaver is not far behind in terms of results thus far.
This is where Weaver really shows what he can be. At some point, we will have to stop calling these numbers peripherals because they are used so often, but people sure are ignoring Weaver’s. Weaver’s minor league walk rate is almost identical to control freak Masahiro Tanaka’s 2016 walk rate. Tanaka’s mark was good for 5th among qualified pitchers (Mike Leake was 4th in case you were wondering). Weaver’s walk rate will go up a bit because it’s the major leagues, but he isn’t suddenly going to walk everybody.
In addition to the walks, Weaver shows the potential to rack up strikeouts. Last year in AA, he averaged over 10 K/9, which led to an unheard of 8.80 K/BB ratio. It was only 77 innings, but nobody comes close to that ratio in the majors. In his time in the majors, Weaver struck out 27 percent of batters, which would have put him in the top 10 among qualified starters.
Nobody expects Weaver to be in the top 10 in strikeouts. In fact, nobody expects him to do what Reyes could have done. However, somewhere between 8 and 9 K/9 is a reasonable expectation. That mark would likely put Weaver between the 60th and 75th percentile in the majors.
The one concern I have with Weaver is that he has a very low ground ball rate. Then again, if Jhonny Peralta and Matt Carpenter are the corner infielders, does it really matter? I suppose the headline for this section should say “Great Peripherals for his Team.” The Cardinals have many ground ball pitchers who get burned by a poor infield. Dexter Fowler is a terrible center fielder, but Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk both cover a lot of ground.
This is Weaver’s Chance, and he Will Run With it
Technically, the Cardinals will say that there is a competition for the fifth spot in the rotation. We know Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Leake and Lance Lynn are in. Michael Wacha and Weaver will be the two fighting for the fifth spot (and maybe Trevor Rosenthal?). However, I don’t see that as much of a competition. Weaver is just entering his pitching prime, while Wacha fell apart last season. Unless Wacha reinvented himself in the offseason, Weaver is just the better pitcher.
When given the shot, Weaver has the ability to crush outside expectations. His rate stats show that he has the upside of a number 2 or 3 starter, and he is near his peak now. Reyes was previously the ROY frontrunner, but Weaver is now the dark horse candidate.
While Reyes was on the better career path, I actually expected Weaver to have the better 2017 (before the Reyes injury). Weaver’s incredible control should help any transition to the majors for a full season, and the lack of experience at AAA will not hurt Weaver in the long run.
The Reyes injury is obviously a devastating blow for the Cardinals, but all is not lost. Weaver can be something special, too, and fans should look forward to that. The truth is that even if I am wrong, it is unlikely that Reyes would have been much better than Weaver in 2017.
Hype is not equivalent to stellar rookie seasons, and these two pitchers weren’t that far apart in terms of results before reaching the majors in 2016. So rather than mope about losing Reyes, get excited for the new ROY candidate, Luke Weaver.
Photo credit: Jeff Curry – USA TODAY Sports