The Washington Post's Dave Sheinin this week took a fascinating deep dive into baseball's toxic love affair with velocity, the force at the root of the game's decline as entertainment.
With more pitchers than ever throwing at least 95 mph, hitters are left with two choices: marry launch angle with exit velocity in the hopes of leaving the park, or find a new line of work. Pitchers roll off a similarly homogenous assembly line, with one 6-foot-4 reliever after another throwing gas. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground.
Then there's Ryan Weber.
The 28-year-old baby-faced right-hander did not reach the big leagues on the strength of his arm so much as the dexterity of his fingers. He breaks 90 mph with his fastball about as often as most of us do on the highway.
He's a throwback to a time when baseball made room for pitchers who didn't max out the radar gun, and rotations craved variety: the flame-throwing right-hander, followed by the crafty lefty, followed by the innings-eater, followed by the forkball specialist, etc. . .
That would seemingly crowd out someone like Webber, who instead relies on the precise location of his sinker, changeup, and curveball. And it's not like opportunities have been plentiful for the former Brave, Mariner, and Ray. Since being drafted in the 22nd round of the 2009 draft by Atlanta, Weber has appeared in only 28 games.
He opened this season as Triple-A depth, and the Red Sox summoned him after injuries to Nathan Eovaldi and David Price thinned the rotation's ranks.
Following three solid relief outings, Weber received the call to start on Thursday against the Blue Jays, where his peculiar set of skills were on full display. Weber reached 90 mph exactly once in 93 pitches. He mostly lived at 86-88 mph with a ton of movement as he worked the corners, stayed out of the middle of the plate, and kept the ball down.
In an age where even accomplished sinkerballers like Rick Porcello feel no choice but to live up in the strike zone, Weber did things his way on Thursday with smashing success. One night after the Red Sox burned through six pitchers in a 13-inning marathon win over the Jays, Weber delivered six innings of one-run ball, limiting the Jays to three hits and striking out four in an 8-2 victory.
"It's different," manager Alex Cora told reporters in Toronto. "It's not that vertical attack, fastballs up, breaking balls down. It's more about pitching east-west and changing speeds. It's like a little bit of old school."
Weber earned his first victory as a starter after spending parts of the last four seasons with the Braves, Mariners, and Rays. If there's one common element to each pitch in his repertoire, it's that nothing is straight. Weber can generate movement to either side of the plate, and he does not let his lack of velocity keep him from throwing front-door two-seamers that start inside to left-handers hitters before zipping back over the corner.
"Just giving the team a chance to win and saving the bullpen was really my main goal," Weber told reporters. "And doing that, I'm excited and proud of what I did."
"Everything felt good," Weber added. "Arm felt great. First win as a starter feels nice."
With Eovaldi making progress in his return from elbow surgery and Price already back in the rotation, the Red Sox hope not to need a rotating fifth starter for much longer. If nothing else, Weber reminded the organization that there's more than one way to be successful, should the need arise again.
"Amazing," Cora said. "He did a good job changing speeds, moving the ball around the strike zone, changing eye level. He can pitch."
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