I’ll admit it, I’m a Luke Weaver fan boy. I’ve been high on him since he arrived with the St. Louis Cardinals for an extended cuppa joe two years ago, and watched him blossom last season with an exceptionally strong streak of starts. But this year I’m going all the way and predicting that Weaver will be a 2018 All Star.
There’s more than admiration in my prediction. Luke Weaver, the young St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who won’t be 25 until August, has demonstrated development that shows progression toward the top ranks of National League pitchers. Let me explain why, first with his history, then with his stuff.
Weaver was chosen twice in the MLB amateur draft. The first time, in 2011, he was chosen out of high school by the Toronto Blue Jays, but not until the 19th round. Rejecting that opportunity, Luke chose to head to Florida State, a bigtime college program.
He spent three years as a Seminole, starting slowly his freshman year but serving as an impressive starter his last two seasons, and becoming an All-American standout. In those sophomore and junior years, he had about a five-to-one K/BB ratio, an ERA safely in the twos, and a WHIP of around 1.00.
That performance elevated him to a first-round pick by the Cardinals in 2014, and he just zoomed in low-minors ball. He spent almost no time in rookie ball, and then on heading to High A Palm Beach, he did a quite similar thing as at FSU, namely, after some early pains, completing the level with a strong ERA and overall performance.
Weaver split 2016 between Springfield, Memphis and the big-league team. At his AA and AAA stints, he was downright scary, with ERAs in the 1.30-1.40 range and K/BB ratios of about eight to one! If his learning at lower levels began with a rough patch, there was little of that zooming through the highest minors levels.
While he struggled a bit in his nine starts for St. Louis that year, there was still a lot to like, with more than a strikeout an inning and again, a high K/BB rate of about four to one.
After another stint in Memphis last year showing he had little to learn at AAA, he came up to stay, and after one struggling start and a relief appearance, had seven in a row with at least five innings and no more than two earned runs. Only at season’s end did he wear out and throw a couple of doglike starts.
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What’s particularly impressive about Weaver’s Cardinals record in 2017 is that he pulled it off with a babip — batting average for balls in play — in the .330s. This is well above the league-average of about .300, and if he reverts to the mean, that could spell even better performance.
Of course the above history shows an ability to adapt and learn as he advanced through more difficult levels. But this is not just about smarts; Luke’s stuff is truly special and bodes well for his major-league future.
First, about that fade at the end of 2017: Weaver has consulted with a nutritionist about how to keep more weight on what has been an ultra-lanky, 6’2″, 170 lb frame. That move is specifically to enable endurance and the long slog that is an MLB season, particularly if playoffs are included.
As for his arm and his battery of pitches, there is a lot to like, especially when mixed with the superlative coaching help of new pitching guru Mike Maddux. Weaver’s fastball sits regularly in the mid-90s and tops a few mph above that, and his change-up is strong. Most think his curve ball still needs some work to be consistently effective at the MLB level.
But again, watching Weaver learn in real-time is one of the joys of seeing him pitch. During spring training, where he’s been lights out, Weaver, who thrived at the knee last year, was extending the strike zone vertically, challenging hitters just above the letters.
This is a trend many pitchers are following, to offset the uppercut swing that has helped drive up home run totals. For Weaver, his ability to implement better verticality will help in at least a couple ways.
First, changing heights should keep batters from guessing low on his heater. Second, it will make his good change even more effective, as hitters see the upward movement and are fooled as the bottom drops out.
Weaver’s mechanics also give a lot of reason for optimism in this era of umpteen shoulder and elbow surgeries. His motion is uncomplicated and has been branded “loose,” and as he builds his body up, there should be less stress on his arm, fortifying an already stable physical situation.
It’s no wonder that in assessing Weaver, the baseball writer Will Leitch said that if he continues at his to-date development, he could have “more than a non-zero chance” to be the Cards’ ace come 2019. With the mercurial Carlos Martinez at the ostensible front of the rotation, I don’t think Leitch is exaggerating.
So I fully expect the maturation of Luke Weaver to continue, and for him to have a magnificent 2018. An All-Star nod is not only more than a remote possibility, I for one think it’s a distinct one.