The Cincinnati Reds have had a busy day. Earlier in the day they came to agreements for the 2023 season with pitchers Lucas Sims, Tejay Antone, Luis Cessa, and Justin Dunn, as well as position players Nick Senzel and Kevin Newman. Now the team has announced that they’ve signed right-handed pitcher Luke Weaver to a 1-year big league contract for $2,000,000. To make room on the 40-man roster for Weaver the team designated Matt Reynolds for assignment.
Cincinnati seemed to be looking for a veteran starting pitcher to add to the rotation this offseason. They may, or may not have found one in Luke Weaver. Much of his career has been as a starter – he racked up 81 big league starts from 2016-2021 – but he made just one start in 2022 as he split his season between Arizona and Kansas City. While his time with Kansas City went better than it did in Arizona, he struggled in both places and posted an ERA of 6.56 in his 35.2 innings that saw him allow 52 hits.
If you want to be optimistic then you can point to the fact that he allowed just one home run all season. If you want to be pessimistic on that point you could point out that his home run rate for his career has been average at best prior to last season and last season was the fewest innings he’s ever thrown in a big league season.
His FIP was 2.69 thanks to that low home run rate and a solid walk rate. But his strikeout rate was below-average for the era of baseball you’re playing in and when hitters made contact the ball found the outfield grass a whole lot. Over his last three big league seasons he’s had an ERA over 6.50 in two of them, with his ERA of 4.25 falling in between the 2020 and 2022 seasons.
So what is it that the Reds are seeing that they felt the need to guarantee a guy with an ERA that was half a run worse than that of Mike Minor in 2022? Let’s start by looking at the stuff that he brings to the table.
Luke Weaver throws four pitches: A 4-seam fastball, a cutter, a change up, and a curveball. Much of what he threw in 2022 was the fastball and the change up, with the fastball being thrown 60.1% of the time and the change up 25% of the time.
The move to the bullpen for Weaver led to the best fastball velocity of his career as he averaged 95 MPH on the pitch. Despite the extra velocity, though, it was a below-average pitch according to Fangraphs Pitch Values metrics. Unfortunately, at least in 2022, so were the rest of his pitches. In 2021 only his change up was a below-average pitch.
Perhaps the Reds see something that they believe can be corrected that could get him back to that version of himself. But there’s some reason to think that maybe it’s going to be tougher than expected.
Major League Baseball started cutting back on allowing pitchers to use tacky substances and Luke Weaver’s spin rates were down across the board in 2022 versus both 2020 and 2021. Given that his fastball was down in spin rate by nearly 100 RPM but was also being thrown harder (which tends to add spin rate), this seems like a “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” situations that he was benefiting from MLB looking the other way in the past and then cracking down on it.
What is interesting with Luke Weaver, though, is just how often he throws his fastball. Pitchers by-and-large are throwing harder than ever, but also throwing fewer fastballs than ever. That’s not the case for Weaver, who has thrown his fastball over 60% of the time in each of the last two seasons. The average fastball rate was 49.1% in the big leagues last season. Switching up how frequently he throws that pitch may help move things in the right direction if he’s capable of finding more success with some of his secondary offerings.
For the most part, Luke Weaver’s BABIP has been worse than the league average. In his career the league average BABIP has gone from .298 down to .289, showing a steady trend that it’s dropping. That’s likely due to increased shift usage, which will be moving in the other direction in 2023. While we don’t know how it will play out, the expectation is that BABIP will rise around the league with the new defensive rules that are going to be in place. Weaver, though, has a career BABIP of .328. When he allows contact in his career it goes for hits far more often than the average pitcher. And in 2022 it was off the charts bad, coming in at .429. It’s highly unlikely that his BABIP will repeat a number that high, or probably anything close to it.
So if you’re trying to remain optimistic you are going to be hoping that his BABIP normalizes back to his career norms or better, his low home run rate continues that he showed last season but in Great American Ball Park, and he finds more consistency with all of his pitches – something he’s shown in the past.
With two spots in the rotation up for grabs in spring training (this is always a bad idea), Luke Weaver will be among a gaggle of guys vying for one of the spots. If he doesn’t take one of those spots expect him to slide back into the bullpen and see where things go from there.