Weaver's 6-0 start a sign of a true ace, and maybe a Cy Young to come
When Jered Weaver recorded his sixth win in as many starts on Monday, much was made of the fact that he was the first man ever to record six wins by April 25. Weaver has been truly dominant thus far this season, but his win pace is unique only by the standards of the Gregorian calendar. Measured against the regular season schedule, what Weaver has accomplished is hardly unique, though it remains extremely impressive.
Indeed, the "record" Weaver broke belonged to Randy Johnson, who in 2002 recorded his sixth win in as many starts on April 26, a day later than Weaver because the 2002 regular season began a day later than this year's. Weaver was the Angels' Opening Day starter and has pitched on a full four-days rest in each of his starts, so the pace of his appearances is utterly unexceptional. Rather, his real accomplishment lies in winning each of his first six starts, something that has been accomplished 77 times since 1919, which is as far back as Baseball-Reference's game logs go.
Not all 77 of those 6-0 starts truly matched what Weaver has done, however. That list includes pitchers who scattered relief appearances or even disabled-list stints between those starts, as well as pitchers who either moved to the rotation or made their season debuts mid-season (such as Weaver himself, who made his first major league appearance on May 27, 2006 and won his first seven starts, albeit with both a return trip to the minors and a DL stint in between the first and sixth of those wins).
If, however, we limit the list to pitchers who, like Weaver, boasted an ERA below 1.00 after six starts, it shrinks to just 13, including Weaver.
There are a few things that stand out about that list. First, of the 10 men on the list since the creation of the Cy Young award in 1956 (not counting Weaver), seven won the award. The exceptions were Ford, Marichal and Jimenez, though the first two did so in years in which there was only one award for the entire major leagues.
That leads to the second thing that stands out about that list. Though it has been done just 13 times since 1919, six of those occurrences have come in the last 14 seasons, and it has been done in each of the last four years, including this one.
We can only speculate as to why these hot starts have come so frequently of late, but the relative abundance of comparable hot starts does give us a nice, if still tiny, sample of seasons to use as a roadmap for where Weaver might go from here. Just looking at the three pitchers who actually bested Weaver's start over the last three years -- Jimenez, Zack Greinke and Cliff Lee -- they averaged a 13-6 record and a 2.97 ERA from their seventh start through the end of the season.
Add in the other nine men, and the average performance of the entire group after those first six starts is almost identical (13-7, 2.97 ERA). There is a relatively small range from Pedro Martinez's 2.16 ERA to Boo Ferriss's 3.59 and from Cliff Lee's 16-3 or Juan Marichal's 19-6 to Fernando Valenzuela's 7-7 or Roger Clemens' 12-10. What won't be found in any of those 12 seasons is a collapse or a major injury. Every one of those dozen pitchers threw enough innings after his sixth start to qualify for that season's ERA title on those frames alone, and they all at least held their own, with several continuing to dominate. None, however, maintained the pace of their hot start.
Since 1919, the longest season-opening streak a pitcher has had in which he won every one of his starts came in 1919 itself, when White Sox knuckleballer Eddie Cicotte won his first 12 starts. Cicotte finished 29-7 with a 1.82 ERA that season, then conspired with seven of his teammates to throw the World Series to the Reds, ultimately earning a lifetime ban from the game. Cicotte, though, took a loss in relief in his fifth appearance of that season and made another relief appearance after his ninth start.
The longest unadulterated season-opening streak in which a pitcher won each of his starts was authored by the Padres' Andy Hawkins, who went 10-0 with a 2.71 ERA in his first 10 starts in 1985. Hawkins wound up 19-8 with a 3.15 ERA, easily his finest season in a career best remembered for a 1990 game in which Hawkins, then a Yankee, pitched eight innings in Chicago without allowing a hit but still managed to
As for the best start a pitcher has ever had (again, since 1919), that belonged to rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela of the Dodgers in 1981. He won his first eight starts, throwing five shutouts in his first seven outings. In those other two, Valenzuela went nine innings allowing just one run. In his eight start, he went the distance again, this time allowing just two runs. By May 14 he was 8-0 with a 0.50 ERA, seven complete games and five shutouts. The only reason he didn't have eight complete games is that it took the Dodgers 10 innings to win his sixth start. All this from a portly, 20-year-old Mexican southpaw screwballer with a quirky delivery. It's no wonder Fernandomania dominated the baseball landscape that spring.
After that eight-start burst, Valenzuela cooled off, going 5-7 with a 3.66 ERA over his final 17 starts of the year, which was interrupted by a player's strike. Weaver should cool off as well, both because his current pace is unsustainable over a full season, and because he's been particularly hit-lucky thus far, with opponents batting just .220 on balls in play against a league average of .282 (a number likely to rise toward the typical .290-to-.300). Looking at Weaver's batted ball types, he is getting a ton of infield pop-ups, but otherwise is roughly in line with his career rates. Don't expect Weaver's pace to slow quite as much as Valenzuela's, however, due partly to the Angels' vastly improved outfield defense. Having former Gold Glove center fielders Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells in the corners and speedy ballhawk Peter Bourjos in center should continue to be a boon to the fly-balling Weaver, keeping his BABIP below league-average and keeping him among the frontrunners for the Cy Young award, which, per that list above, may already be his.
Weaver also took a huge leap forward last year in his age-27 season, changing speeds more effectively and refining his control to add two strikeouts per nine innings to his previous career rate and leading the AL in Ks. This year, his strikeout rate is up yet again, to an AL-best 9.7, with the vast majority of his swings-and-misses coming on his off-speed stuff (slider, changeup and curve, all thrown at no more than 80 miles per hour). Likewise, his walk rate, also a career-best last year, is also improved again, to 2.0 per nine innings.
Any questions about Weaver's 2010 being a fluke seem to have been answered. Instead, it seems clear that we're witnessing the maturation of a true ace, much like we did when Cliff Lee broke out with a 6-0 start in his age-29 season in 2008. The difference between those two, beyond their throwing arms, is that the righty Weaver had a stronger career than the lefty Lee prior to his 6-0 start and is a year younger than Lee was when he had his breakout season.
Weaver isn't about to trigger Jeredmania, but it seems a safe bet that he won't lose his arbitration case again this winter should his case even get that far. Given the contract Cliff Lee just signed, Weaver, a free agent after the 2013 season, seems well on his way to becoming the next in baseball's rapidly expanding collection of $100 million men.