SURPRISE, Ariz. – Timing, as “they” say, is everything.
For Arizona Diamondbacks’ right-hander Luke Weaver, timing is now more than critical. Coming off forearm tightness that landed him on the disabled list from May 21 to Sept. 21, the sense of urgency is as acute as it is critical. That’s because Weaver is penciled in the starting rotation between Madison Bumgarner and Robbie Ray, a pair of power lefties. Until he went down in late May, Weaver demonstrated effectiveness, control and the ability to get batters out.
In the process, he limited opposing hitters to a .186 batting average with runners-on-base and finished his initial season in the desert with an ERA under three runs (2.94) per nine innings.
Both Weaver and manager Torey Lovullo discount any lingering effect of the injury, but Weaver’s inability to pound the strike zone with any consistency this spring lays directly on the Diamondbacks’ radar screen.
In his initial start of the spring Feb. 26 against the Oakland A’s, Weaver did not get out of the first inning. In just two-thirds of one inning, he allowed two walks, two hits and surrendered four runs. On Tuesday night against the Kansas City Royals, Weaver continued his inability to “put hitters away,” left in the second inning with 38 pitches delivered, including 31 in the opening inning, and gave up two runs.
“I’m getting a little frustrated out there, and just not able to put guys away,” Weaver said after his start Tuesday night against the Royals. “I’m letting them stay in the at-bats. We call those, ‘kill pitches,’ the put-away pitches, and the pitches are just not landing where I want. That’s the stuff with pitching. It’s about getting out there and getting it done.”
The dichotomy of Weaver’s effort against the Royals with a high pitch count versus strike-pitch strike. In that 31-pitch first inning, he landed a first-pitch strike to five of the seven hitters he faced in that frame. With a plethora of foul balls coming off a two-strike count, Weaver pointed out the need to bury hitters early in the count.
“It’s all about how you set up hitters in that inning,” Weaver said of the two-strike fouls. “You can see an inning where they will put together some good at-bats early. That’s why those guys earned those spots, like in the one, two area. If you watch a pitcher out there, like me, you see someone stressing a little bit, just off the zone, and they see that stuff. Their attack will be a specific way and know if they can continue to get a pitch count up, then the pitcher will be out of the game sooner. I have to be able to take charge and really, just get it done.”
If the Diamondbacks are to contend, Weaver needs to be an integral part. Coming over from the St. Louis Cardinals in the Paul Goldschmidt trade, his potential was terrific. Selected by the Cardinals in the first round (27th overall) in the 2014 draft, Weaver was, by 2017, ranked by Baseball America as the Cardinals’ number two pitching prospect.
After going 7-11 in 25 starts (4.05 ERA) in 2018, Weaver fell off the St. Louis radar screen and eventually landed in the desert with catcher Carson Kelly in the Goldschmidt deal.
Regarded as the Diamondbacks strongest right-hander on the rotation, Weaver fits ideally between Bumgarner and Ray, the power lefties. Despite elevated numbers in his first two starts of the spring and recovery from an injury which kept off the mound for most of the season, Weaver commands Lovullo's full attention.
“We feel very good about this recovery,” Lovullo said prior to Tuesday’s game with Kansas City. “At the end of last year, I know he threw one or two innings in San Diego and we feel good knowing he had an off-season to get ready for 2020. He has come out and thrown the ball extremely well. No limitation with him, and just excites to see what he can do.”
Bumgarner makes his second start of the spring Wednesday at Salt River and faces Cleveland.
Though the Diamondbacks face the Indians in the regular season and there is a need not to expose a starter to a team on the schedule, the dates with Cleveland are isolated. The Diamondbacks and Indians are slated for a three-game slate in late August, the 25-27 at Progressive Field. Because of that chronology, Lovullo told reporters he is very comfortable to have Bumgarner face Cleveland here in early March.