On Friday, Jered Weaver failed to make it out of the first inning in a 10-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He allowed seven runs, and his ERA -- now at 7.44 -- has gone up for the sixth year in a row. San Diego put him on the DL with hip inflammation, but Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler had already said that Weaver was on a short leash.
It is an open question whether he will be allowed to pitch in the majors again -- for the Padres or for anybody else. If he doesn't, it would be a bleak ending for one of the era's great pitching careers: nine batters and 39 pitches, a dog's breakfast of bad-luck hits and no-doubt homers, of well-located pitches spoiled and mistakes punished; a career ending on its very worst start. One question hung above it all: What sends a pitcher as accomplished as Weaver back out to fail?
Batter No. 1. Gregor Blanco -- single to shortstop
A couple of summers ago, I co-ran baseball operations for an independent minor league team called the Sonoma Stompers, near the bottom of the professional baseball ladder. Part of the job was deciding which players we would cut. Or, more honestly: Which players we would forcibly retire. We'd call each victim into a conference room at the end of spring training or after they'd been too bad for too long, and our general manager, Theo Fightmaster, would always start by telling them the same thing: "Most of us aren't lucky enough to choose when to walk away. The game tells us."
Jered Weaver, I'd argue, defied that. A little more than two years ago, Weaver's velocity dropped 4 miles per hour, from charming curiosity -- he was probably the best 87 mph thrower in the game -- to punch line, as he was the only 83 mph thrower in the game. (Excepting knuckleballers, at least.) "I don't pay attention to velocity," he told reporters in the spring of 2015, but it didn't really matter if he was paying attention so much as if the guys with the sticks were. They were.
Last year, he was probably the least effective starting pitcher in baseball. In a pitcher's park, he led the American League in home runs, had the second-worst strikeout rate, had the highest FIP and tied for the worst ERA+. He literally broke my favorite advanced pitching stat, Baseball Prospectus' Deserved Run Average, which had to undergo some minor surgery because Weaver cracked the bottom of the scale and turned the Angels into a theoretically sub-.000 team when he was on the mound.
Healthy pitchers can convince teams to employ them for a long time with numbers even that bad -- but rarely with radar gun readings that bad. If Weaver came back this year, it was obvious that it wouldn't be for a contender. There would be little financial incentive in continuing. He wasn't closing in on some career milestone or Hall of Fame candidacy. There was no realistic upside that he was going to be reborn and revive his career, the next Bartolo Colon or Rich Hill, because there is no contemporary model for a right-handed pitcher throwing in the low-80s and thriving in the majors.
If he came back, he knew that every time he walked out to the mound, he'd be standing naked out there, throwing pitches that were slower than he'd ever thrown, to hitters who were slugging home runs at a historic rate. He'd have to do it in public, with thousands of people watching him struggle.
That's what he signed up for. The game told him to walk away. He chose otherwise.
No. 2. David Peralta -- Popout to shortstop
At MLB.com, this is the only highlight of the game that gets tagged with Weaver's name. It's a routine popup in the first inning with a runner on first base in a game that his team will lose by nine.
No. 3. Paul Goldschmidt -- Walk; Blanco to second
Weaver said, after signing with the Padres, that he considered retirement last season. But after closing the 2016 campaign relatively strongly -- four starts with a 3.04 ERA and almost a strikeout per inning -- he had no doubt he'd try to pitch again. "I still have a lot to prove," he said.
This is an odd thing to hear, particularly because of the word "still." Sure, each of us wakes up every day with something to prove, with a new set of challenges or a new set of goals to motivate us toward the weekend. But "I still have a lot to prove" implies that there were things he had to prove, and he still has to prove those things.
What could Jered Weaver possibly still prove that he failed to prove in the past? He had proved himself at Long Beach State, where he was one of the great college pitchers in history; as a minor league prospect, when he made it to the majors less than a year after signing with the Angels; as a major leaguer, by quickly establishing himself as a reliable No. 2 or 3 starter; and, finally, as a bona fide ace. He threw a no-hitter, he started an All-Star Game, he put up excellent postseason numbers, and from 2010 to 2012, he might well have been the American League's best pitcher. He even proved himself a "True" Angel, taking a legitimate hometown discount to stay with the club that had drafted him and that played in his native region. There is nothing unproven from that period of his career that he could still prove, that his arm is realistically capable of proving.
Here's what he can prove, though, that has been there the whole way: He can prove that he can do it when it's hard. The pitching, but the rest of it too: the dealing with failure, the being under the glare, the obligation to one's teammates, the self-doubt. All of that stuff is easier when you can throw hard. The test is when you can't, and now he's really being tested.
No. 4. Jake Lamb -- Home run to right field; Blanco, Goldschmidt score
At Scott Boras' office in Newport Beach, the lobby walls are covered with pictures of his famous clients, including Weaver. In the open center of the room, up high, are huge pictures of the premier stars: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and the like. Below, but still visible in the middle of the room, are medium-sized portraits of second-tier stars and major league regulars. In the hallways and the shadows are smaller portraits of the other guys, the ones you forgot Boras represented, who you maybe forgot were still in the majors.
I imagine every Boras client who walks into that lobby for the first time sees his own picture and gets a thrill. The stars are honored to be in the stars section; the bit players are honored just to be there, in that company. But careers go up and then they go down, and there's a point when, one assumes, a player walks into that office and sees that his picture has been shrunken and moved.
I don't know where on the wall Weaver's photo is these days. But some version of that experience -- of being reminded of one's own decline -- must be everywhere for major leaguers. The lifestyle remains awesome enough that it's easy to get through the day with ego intact, but a few times at idle moments, the world will send a signal: You used to be, but now not so much. Every day, the aging star walks into a clubhouse filled with teammates who know how good he used to be and how good he isn't. Retire, and all of that goes away; then you're an elder, belonging to history and the in-my-day circuit. Keep playing, and the indignities of getting worse pile up.
What I'm saying is there's a bravery required in not walking away.
No. 5. Yasmany Tomas -- Walk
A lot of times, we want to turn athletes' successes or struggles into something deep and complicated, a morality play with them at the center, a hero's journey in which they ultimately have full agency in the final outcome. But Jered Weaver isn't bad now because he quit trying or because he forgot how to pitch or because he doesn't want it enough or because he's doing something wrong. He isn't bad now because the league adjusted or because he needs a better plan or because people around him are letting him down or because the game changed around him. His body just doesn't throw as hard as it used to. That's the entire thing: What he did worked when he could throw harder, but now it doesn't because he can't. There's nothing but that. It's simple, and it should be, by any reasonable standard, entirely shameless. He's trying. The only thing he's in control of now is how he handles it when it's harder and sadder.
No. 6. Brandon Drury -- Home run to left-center field; Tomas scores
There are two memories of Weaver that stick with me more than any others. One is from early in the 2012 season, and it's a few seconds of Weaver erupting into furious, unrestrained profanity after he allowed a meaningless single in a low-stakes moment. That was all it took for this guy who was living the absolute American dream to turn into the most aggrieved person in the world.
Between the lines, he was probably the surliest major leaguer in the game. He'd glare at teammates who made mistakes behind him, or he'd stew about an umpire's call long enough to complain to reporters about it after the game. He'd throw at a batter for calling time out, and he apparently didn't believe that message pitches needed to be kept below the head. He looked mean and mad and angry and unhappy and teetering on the edge of kicking a water cooler over and just going home. Watching him in any of those moments, he would have been the last player I'd have thought would be capable of keeping calm during these past couple years.
No. 7. Chris Owings -- Double to center
The second memory is from his prime, sometime between 2009 and 2011, when I covered the Angels. He's sitting at his locker after a game, waiting for the reporters to scrum around him for a quote. There was an open Bud Light on the ground near his foot, a bottle with cold condensation on its neck. I don't remember which start this was exactly, but I remember that it was an ambiguous performance. It was the sort of start with a pitching line like 5/8/1/1/3/3 (No Decision). I wondered whether Weaver was having that beer because he considered it to have been a tough day at the office and he needed a beer or because he considered it to have been a successful day at the office and he wanted to celebrate. Was he drowning or toasting with that beer?
Weaver didn't give many good quotes after his starts. He seemed happy enough to be the surly interview, never satisfied by what had happened but also never defeated, competitive to the point of impatience with everything else. But that surliness clashed with the other Weaver who would sometimes peak through in public accounts, the laid-back Californian who was so grateful for his family and so loyal to his fans. Knowing why he had that beer that day -- drowning or toasting, Zen or tormented, half-empty or half-full -- has always seemed like the key to understanding it all. Was the surly Weaver a created fiction that he needed to drive himself every fifth day, or was he really that unhappy with the game?
No. 8. Jeff Mathis -- Groundout; Owings to third
I think the fact that he didn't walk away answers the question. I think the fact that he could write and submit this tweet answers the question even more:
Don't worry padre fans I have a solution..we are going to have the outfielders in the stands next start to catch all those homers!— Jered Weaver (@Weave1036) May 2, 2017
No. 9. Taijuan Walker -- Single to center; Owings scores
Taijuan Walker's batting average flashes onscreen: .080. Weaver gets ahead with a fastball that Walker fouls off, then evens the count with a slider low and outside. He throws another fastball, another foul. This is one problem with throwing an 83 mph fastball: Even the opposing pitcher can pretty easily catch up to it. Weaver, going for the punchout, tries a curveball. Walker grounds it right up the middle, Weaver waves his glove at it hopelessly, and that's it -- the last pitch Jered Weaver will throw today.
Miguel Diaz replaces Jered Weaver, pitching and batting ninth
There are boos. For shame.