Weaver Watch Midseason Report

A month into the 2011 baseball season, Jered Weaver had established a historic pace, giving up just five earned runs in his first six starts. Three weeks later, Weaver was scuffling, his pace derailed from historic to simply the best in baseball. All has been relatively quiet on the Weaver front since then, but Weaver was chosen this weekend to start tonight’s All-Star Game for the American League, prompting me to revisit his excellent first half.

We’ll start with the metric that started the Watch: Season Score. Weaver led all of baseball in Season Score for essentially all of April and May and into June, consistently pitching deep into games and striking out batters. When Justin Verlander kicked off a streak in mid-June comparable to Weaver’s start to the season, he took over the league lead. Verlander now leads the AL (and all of baseball) with a 456 Season Score. Weaver trails by 40 points, which may seem like a significant margin, but he actually stands 47 points ahead of NL leader Cole Hamels.

Compared to the recent benchmarks I laid out earlier in the Weaver watch, both Weaver and Verlander are on an impressive pace. Verlander has started 20 games, one more than Weaver. Through 19 starts, Verlander’s Season Score was 427, while Weaver’s stands at 416 through the same point. Last year’s early season wonder, Ubaldo Jimenez, was stuttering by mid-July, his Season Score stuck at 348 after three below-replacement-level starts in his last five outings. By this point last year, the major league leader was Cliff Lee at 389, just ahead of James Shields’s third-place mark this year. I haven’t adjusted replacement level to reflect this year’s league-wide pitching dominance, but it’s clear that Weaver has more staying power this year than the 2010 version of Jimenez.

2009’s early season wonder was Zack Grienke, who recorded a Game Score of 62 or better in each of his first eight starts and kept it up most of the year, finishing with a Season Score of 608 (and a Cy Young Award). Through 19 starts, Greinke stood at 334, nowhere near Weaver or Verlander this year. Even in one of the great seasons in recent memory, Greinke recorded two Game Scores under 30. More than halfway into this season, Weaver hasn’t dipped under 40. In fact, after a mid-May lull in which three games in a row registered scores in the 40s, Weaver’s Game Scores have all been 59 or better, as he’s lasted at least seven innings in nine straight starts, giving up as many as two runs just twice in that span.

Weaver’s Season Score excellence is obviously backed up my more traditional metrics. He takes a league-leading 1.86 ERA and a 120/31 strikeout/walk ratio into the break. Verlander, meanwhile, sits at 2.15, with 147 strikeouts and 31 walks. In 2009, Greinke’s ERA after 19 starts was 2.08, and he’d struck out 136 and walked 24.

Jered Weaver’s .241 batting average on balls in play may not be sustainable over a whole season, but he’s proven himself to be a great strikeout pitcher with good command, and hitters haven’t figured him out yet this year. His run of excellence has lasted longer than Jimenez’s did last year, and his 2011, at least by one measure, has been even better than Zack Greinke’s 2009. There’s only one reason the buzz about Weaver has diminished some since the spring: Justin Verlander has been even better.

If the season started on May 29, Verlander would have a ridiculous 275 Season Score after nine starts, almost 100 points better than Weaver’s through his first nine starts. But then, CC Sabathia’s 133 score over has last four games before the break is even better than Verlander’s last four and better than any four consecutive games Weaver has pitched this season.

It’s natural to overreact to small sample sizes, particularly early in the season. At this point, though, Jered Weaver has established himself as a true ace, capable of putting up Cy Young-worthy numbers for a whole season. Unfortunately for Weaver, so has Justin Verlander.

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