In each of the last two seasons, one pitcher got off to a scorching start, leading his league in virtually every category and making fans wonder if this was the beginning of a historic season. Of course, early season pitching numbers are subject to the same caveats as early season hitting numbers or team won-loss records in April. We need to recognize that streaks happen throughout the year every year and be weary of paying too much attention to a streak just because it happened at the beginning of a year and thus is presented as a cumulative feat, rather than a midseason anomaly.
What the Angels’ Jered Weaver has done in his first six starts in 2011 is remarkable, and it’s probably time to give his start some historical perspective. In six starts, Weaver is 6-0 with a 0.99 ERA and a 0.79 WHIP. He’s struck out 49 and walked ten in 45 2/3 innings. His Season Score of 172 leads the American League by 56 points and the majors by 41.
In 2010, it was the Rockies’ Ubaldo Jimenez who came out of the gate with a fury, carrying a sub-1 ERA and an 11-1 record into June. Jimenez struck out 44 and walked 16 in his first six starts, so his underlying performance didn’t support his 0.87 ERA quite as well as Weaver’s has, but there was no denying that Jimenez had established himself as one of the game’s best pitchers by the end of April, much like Weaver has done this year. Jimenez’s Season Score of 148 after six games led the majors, but not by as much as Weaver’s 172.
In 2009, Zack Greinke, then of the Royals, was the early season breakout story. Greinke opened the season 6-0 with a ridiculous 0.40 ERA and 54 strikeouts vs. just eight walks in 55 innings over his first six starts. Greinke’s 183 Season Score to this point was even more impressive than Weaver’s.
Can we use Jiminez’s and Greinke’s seasons to predict what we can expect of Weaver in 2011? There’s not enough data here to come to any dependable conclusions, but we know one thing: it’s highly unlikely that Weaver will average a Game Score of 74 throughout the season. Jimenez was otherworldly through 11 starts, averaging a 71.5 Game Score over that stretch, and turned in three more above average games after that. Beginning with his fifteenth start, he averaged a 42.3 Game Score over his next six, finally coming back to earth as some of those balls in play started finding gaps, rather than gloves. Jimenez finished strong, averaging a Game Score just over 60 the rest of the way and compiling a 516 Season Score, third best in the National League, despite pitching half his games in the most extreme hitters’ park in the majors.
While Jimenez’s spring numbers suggested a historic 2010, Greinke’s 2009 was a truly historic season. After averaging a 75.4 Game Score through seven starts, Greinke was merely very good over his next 16, averaging 54.5 (20% better than replacement level) and going just 5-7 due to some pathetic run support from his Royals. On August 25, Greinke started another brilliant run, averaging a 71.7 Game Score over his next nine starts and completing one of the great seasons in modern baseball. Greinke’s 2.16 ERA and 242/51 strikeout/walk ratio easily won him a Cy Young award and established him as one of the game’s top pitchers, if not the best. His 608 Season Score was the best in either league, though it falls just short of Felix Hernandez’s 627 in 2010 (both pitchers averaged a 63.4 Game Score, but Hernandez got one more start).
Based on these two precedents and barring serious injury, I can see Weaver’s season finishing one of three ways: an all-time great season like Greinke’s, a very impressive, near-Cy Young season like Jimenez’s, or merely a good year that began with a hot streak. Weaver’s strikeout-to-walk rate is not quite as good as Greinke’s after six games, but better than Jimenez’s, so we shouldn’t expect him to fall hard when the laws of luck and BABiP strike. Weaver’s career numbers (70-39 with a 3.42 ERA over five seasons) suggest that he’s more fully-developed than either Greinke or Jimenez was during their breakout years, so there’s another reason not to assume Weaver will flame out. Weaver’s early workload (he’ll make seven starts and probably pitch at least 52 innings by the end of April) could be a concern, but his innings pitched are trending in the right direction over the past few seasons (161, 177, 211, and 224 since 2007), suggesting that he may be ready for 230+ innings this year.
My early prediction for Weaver is a huge season- at least 230 innings and at least that many strikeouts, an ERA under 3.00, and a Season Score between 550 and 600. With that in mind, we shouldn’t forget that it’s possible that Weaver is just enjoying this year’s hot streak at the beginning of the year. Let’s call this the beginning of the Weaver Watch. We’ll check in periodically to see whether Weaver’s 2011 is keeping up with the pace set by Jimenez in 2010 and Greinke in 2009. We know better than to make bold assumptions based on small sample sizes, but huge numbers in April give fans and players a chance to dream. And if Jered Weaver’s dreaming about a 36-0 season with an ERA under 1, who’s going to stop him?