Sunday, April 10, 2011
Are Angels overusing their aces?
By Mark Saxon
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Are the Los Angeles Angels relying on too much of a good thing?
Pitchers Dan Haren and Jered Weaver have been so dominant in these early days of the season, Angels manager Mike Scioscia has used them in surprisingly big doses. Haren and Weaver have made Scioscia look smart so far, and helped the Angels avoid a sluggish start, but you have to wonder whether they can continue to carry this kind of load.
Odds are Scioscia will find ways of easing up as the season progresses. He hasn't been shy about letting them carry the team so far.
Haren pitched an inning of relief during Saturday's 14-inning marathon, three days after going 7⅔ innings in Tampa Bay. It was his first bullpen appearance in seven years. Weaver (3-0) dominated the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, striking out a career-high 15 batters in the Angels' 3-1 win.
It took him a career-high 125 pitches -- in his third start of the season -- to do so.
Weaver was huffing and puffing and elevating pitches in the eighth inning, but he managed to strike out Jose Bautista with a diving slider with his final pitch to give the Angels' depleted bullpen a breather. It was an ace-like performance, to be sure, but it wasn't without risk. Neither was using Haren in relief a day after he had thrown his normal between-starts bullpen session. The Angels have five wins so far and Haren and Weaver have been the winning pitcher in all five.
Pitchers tend to get hurt when they're trying to snap off tough pitches while their arms and bodies are sore, their lungs burning. The Angels aren't going anywhere this year if Weaver and Haren aren't healthy and effective in the final months. Is it worth sapping their strength before Tax Day?
Already, Scioscia has recognized the risk he's running and taken some steps. He pushed Haren's Monday start back to Tuesday. He consulted with pitching coach Mike Butcher, who had just visited the mound, before letting Weaver face Bautista. You know Weaver wanted to face the Jays slugger, who led baseball with 54 home runs last season.
Again, the decisions haven't been wrong, they've just been risky.
In a sense, Weaver was the perfect man to have on the mound after his team had reached this early-season mini-crisis, several of the relievers unavailable with sore arms, but preserving the bullpen hasn't been his strong suit. Weaver has made 147 major league starts and completed just four games.
He recognized he actually needed to change how he does things Sunday. He and Ervin Santana were the only pitchers on the roster who didn't pitch Saturday.
"Obviously, it's no secret I rely a lot on my bullpen," Weaver said. "It's one of those things where you've just got to change it up and attack the zone as much as possible, get some early outs and try to get out there and stay out there."
And how did he feel after throwing so many pitches just 10 days after the Angels broke camp?
"Ask me tomorrow, I'll let you know," Weaver said. "I've still got a little adrenaline going right now. I'm sure I'll be a little sore tomorrow."
Weaver can be merciless when he gets an edge. Plate umpire Brian Knight was calling strikes when Weaver got the ball in the vicinity of the outside edge of the plate, so he pounded that spot all game long. He threw 91-mph fastballs where the hard-swinging Blue Jays couldn't pull them and threw off-speed pitches where they could only swing and miss.
It really wasn't different from what the Angels saw out of Weaver last season while he was going 13-12. Weaver might be the most anonymous ace in the league.
"If he had had some offensive support and support in the field, you're looking at a guy who's in the Cy Young running," Scioscia said. "That's the talent Weave has."
There are two primary planks to his ability to strike out so many hitters. Weaver can put the ball in pinpoint locales. If a gnat landed on the catcher's glove, Weaver wouldn't just shoo it, he could take out one of the insect's legs while leaving the rest intact.
"It's unbelievable, the ability he has to put the ball in the glove, wherever you put it," catcher Bobby Wilson said.
The other aspect that makes Weaver the most dominant strikeout pitcher of the day: deception. He is 6-foot-7 and he has a lot of moving parts going in unusual directions. Here's how Angels right-hander Fernando Rodney, who is 5-11, described Weaver's unorthodox delivery:
"The leg goes that way," Rodney said, indicating the third-base side, "and the arm goes that way," Rodney said, pointing toward first.
In other words, Weaver throws across his body, which can lead some experts to fret about an arm injury. All the more reason to treat these early-season games with caution. The Angels clearly are building around Weaver and Haren to get back in contention after a dismal 2010, but there's an old saying in baseball.
You can't win a pennant in April, but you can lose one.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.