Welcome to Dirtbags Baseball blog! I was introduced to Long Beach State baseball in 2002 when my nephew, Neil Jamison, joined the team (and university) as a freshman. I started the blog in March of 2004, and generally discuss the team, current players and those that have moved on to professional baseball - as Neil has done in the San Diego Padres organization. Living in San Diego County, and with Neil moving to the next level, I won't be attending as many Dirtbags games. But, mostly from a distance, I'll remain a Dirtbags fan. I welcome tips on stories and information concerning the Dirtbags (current, past and future). I can be contacted at email@example.com.
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Jered Weaver, the Angels' top draft pick from 2004, gets his feet wet at Rancho Cucamonga and rounds into form after a sitting out a full year
By David Lassen July 20, 2005
RANCHO CUCAMONGA -- In an empty ballpark, with his next start two days away, Jered Weaver is perfecting his craft.
For 15 minutes, the pitcher from Simi Valley throws off the bullpen mound at the Epicenter, the home of the California League's Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. To a casual observer, the throwing motion of the 6-foot-7 right-hander seems fluid, almost effortless, as he mixes pitches and locations, but the two men watching Weaver are anything but casual observers.
Erik Bennett, the Quakes' pitching coach, and Mike Butcher, the roving pitching instructor for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, watch carefully as Weaver works. This is Day 3 in the five-day work cycle of a starting pitcher, and for a pitcher like Weaver, this is the day to learn.
"Today's the day we do the mechanical work," says Bennett. "If there's any adjustments or stuff we need to work on, today's the day we do it."
For the coaches, it's a vital part in the development of a pitcher who represents a $4 million investment by the Angels, one who some observers believe could climb from his current spot in Class-A ball to the majors this season.
It's a gradual process, all the more so, because Weaver didn't join the team until mid-June, nearly a year after the Angels drafted him in the first round. The long layoff during contract negotiations means Weaver is still at a point akin to the late stages of spring training.
"The first week, we just watch him," says Bennett. "Then we do a little bit at a time. Nothing major, because he's pretty solid as far as mechanics go. We've just been doing some little stuff to help him keep his elbow up so he stays on top of the ball."
This is an atypical day because of the presence of Butcher, who roves the Angel farm system working with pitchers at all levels. While he saw Weaver throw shortly after the pitcher signed, this visit is Butcher's first chance to work with the pitcher since he made his minor-league debut, and will include his first look at Weaver in a game. "I wanted to see him more when he was at full strength than when he was a guy working his way back into shape," he says.
As Weaver works -- in all, he throws about 40 pitches -- the two coaches move frequently to get different perspectives on the pitcher's delivery, occasionally asking a question or making a brief suggestion.
"Be more aggressive with your hips on this next one," Butcher suggests at one point. Weaver nods, throws a slider to the inside corner of the plate, and nods again with approval.
Weaver finishes the workout by throwing a series of pitchouts, then stands on the bullpen mound for a long time, talking with Butcher, as Bennett moves off to work with other Rancho Cucamonga players.
"He's a good kid, man," Bennett says later, sitting in the Rancho Cucamonga dugout as the Quakes take batting practice. "Today he threw a nice bullpen. Has a great feel for the fastball, has good command. His breaking ball's nice and tight. He's going to be a lot of fun to work with."
An unconventional tall pitcher
It's a baseball truism taller pitchers take longer to develop, longer to perfect their delivery, but the smoothness of the 22-year-old belies the notion.
"There's a lot of moving parts, obviously, but he has very good coordination," says Butcher. "... He's very fluid. It takes guys a long time to get to where they can repeat their deliveries, and he does a pretty good job of it already. So as far as that goes, he's ahead of the curve."
Agrees Rancho Cucamonga manager Ty Boykin: "There's no herky-jerky kinks, there's no overthrowing. He knows what he's trying to do out there, and he knows how to pitch. He's got a very good sense of how to pitch. You see a lot of guys that come into pro ball, especially pitchers, and they get to a point where they just want to throw it. And he hasn't shown that."
Butcher has already seen signs Weaver is a quick study when it comes to the kind of details the coach wants to address. The first time he saw Weaver, he noted the pitcher stepped toward first base in his delivery, and suggested it would be better if he stepped back over the pitching rubber.
" We want weight transfer back," says Butcher, "so he can get into his balance and his direction. ... I said I want to see you pitch first, before you make these adjustments. And he liked it so much that he's doing it now, and he's comfortable with it already."
Weaver later confirms the positive difference the change has made.
"Going straight back is causing me to stay through the target instead of pulling off all the time, which is great advice," he says. "It's helped out a lot."
The progress Weaver has made -- both from such coaching tips and as he scrapes off the rust and rebuilds his arm strength after his long layoff -- is evident two nights later, as he faces Lancaster in his sixth start for Rancho Cucamonga.
He went just two innings in his pro debut, and followed with a couple of rough outings that left him with an ERA approaching 10.00. But in the Saturday night game, he records his third straight win, striking out 11 in six innings.
"I'm working on getting ahead of hitters," Weaver says. "It worked out good today, and I really wasn't trying to strike out too many. I was trying to get outs within the first three pitches ... but (the strikeouts) just come up. I felt good."
Working under a 95-pitch limit, he throws 88 pitches, 62 for strikes, and shows his ability to adjust to an umpire's strike zone. Early in the game, plate umpire Jesse Redwine establishes a willingness to call a strike on pitches away from left-handed batters, and Weaver takes advantage. Seven of his strikeouts are against the six left-handers in the Lancaster order.
"That was a thing coming into tonight's game," Weaver says. "I knew there were going to be a lot of lefties, so I was going to have to use my sinker a lot, and I had great control with it. Got quick with it a couple of times, but I as able to make an adjustment to make the repetition and keep it down and way, and it worked out great."
Thinking back to the bullpen session two days earlier, Weaver sees another reason to judge the night a success.
"I was working on more of a quick set out of the stretch, which came along really good," he says. "I was like 1.3 to 1.4" -- his time in seconds delivering the ball to the plate -- "and I was 1.6 to 1.7 before. We've been really working on that in drills and bullpens, and I'm starting to really feel a lot more comfortable with it, when I got out of the stretch."
Pitching at 90 percent strength
Overall, Weaver judges he's back to about 90 percent of where he was during his final season at Long Beach, when he was 15-1 with a 1.62 ERA. "I'm still hitting a wall in the sixth," he says. "I could have gone back out there in the seventh, but I would have been a little fatigued. It would have been nice to get over that hump. ... It's about getting to the eighth or ninth, but with the way our bullpen's throwing, I'm happy to go six."
At 90 percent, Weaver is pretty darned good. In his last three games, he's struck out 26 and walked just two in 16 2/3 innings, while allowing eight hits and four earned runs -- a performance that makes it plain why the Angels are so high on him.
"He's heady, he comes from a baseball background, and he's a good kid," says Butcher. "We obviously like what we see, and he's fun to work with. He's wanting to learn. He's like a sponge right now."
And regardless what timetable the organization might have in mind, Boykin notes Weaver appears to be ahead of schedule.
"This is like his spring training, building everything up," says the manager. " You don't expect to see the high strikeouts like you're seeing right now. But it just tells you his mind frame is that he wants to get going. He talked about that from Day 1.
"We've just got to make sure he doesn't get ahead of himself, but he's not. He's making good strides, he's doing good things, his ball's got a lot of movement, he's mixing his pitches well, all locations, up, down, in, out. He's got a pretty good repertoire of pitches and locations. And it's a confidence builder for him, because he wants to show everybody he can pitch. And the way he's going right now, he's proving his point."