Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Ryan Weber.
The Question: Can Ryan Weber hold it together against lefties?
Before the world turned upside down and the biggest question for Red Sox fans, and all baseball fans really, became whether or not there would be a season to begin with, the question on all Boston fans’ minds was who exactly would fill out the rotation. That was a question even with a healthy Chris Sale, and the situation was only made more dire with the injury to the staff ace. A shortened season, which appears to be the best-case scenario no matter what the league says about pushing games to later in the year, would theoretically help a starter-needy team (less concern about pushing relievers on a day-to-day basis), but there’s no scenario in which you can live with only three or four viable starters. In other words, the Red Sox need someone to step up no matter what.
Again, before the world turned upside down, Ryan Weber was basically a slam dunk to make the rotation. He was the favorite coming into camp, pitched well in his spring training outings and another spot opening up only made his path that much easier. The fact that literally Ryan Weber seemed like a slam dunk made some people all the more uneasy about the state of Boston’s rotation, which is understandable. I mean, we’re talking about a 29-year-old who came into last season with 73 2⁄3 career innings in the majors across four seasons with a park-adjusted ERA that came in 18 percent worse than league-average. Last season he got 40 innings with the Red Sox and finished with a 5.09 ERA. So, yeah, him being a shoo-in for the number four rotation spot is not great!
I won’t try to convince anyone that this is not a reasonable position, because I am not a crazy person. However, it may not be quite as disastrous as we might think. There are a couple of reasons for the mildest of optimism around Weber. For one thing, a 5.09 ERA in 2019 is not as bad as one might think. It’s certainly not good, but it was only five percent worse than league-average. That’s serviceable for a back-of-the-rotation arm. Furthermore, his peripherals were solid as well, which his park-adjusted FIP being seven percent better than average while his DRA was just two percent worse than average.
Those peripherals come down to two facts. For one thing, he barely walked anyone, finishing his time in the majors with a walk rate below five percent. He’s always been a guy who can hit the zone, never finishing a stint in the majors with a zone rate below fifty percent. That can be scary for a guy without swing and miss stuff — and Weber decidedly does not possess swing and miss stuff — but he also induced some weak contact. This was over a small sample so don’t take it too much on its face, but Weber kept the ball on the ground a ton to keep his home run rate in check. Additionally, he kept his average exit velocity at 87 mph and the expected wOBA against him was .306. This all makes some sense for a guy whose main three pitches all have above-average movement both horizontally and vertically according to Baseball Savant.
So, by the major metrics Weber was roughly league-average last year and he did so because of good control and tough-to-square-up pitches. That’s somewhat encouraging, particularly if you ignore the small sample. Still, there was one issue holding him back that would be much harder to get over as a starter, and that’s that lefties teed off on him. In 2019, 15 of Weber’s 18 appearances came out of the bullpen, which means it’s a bit easier for a manager to set up in his pitcher’s favor. Even when he was pitching in mop-up duties facing more than just a couple batters, those are game situations where other teams are less likely to use a pinch hitter to take advantage of his weakness.
Again, we are dealing with a small sample here, but the platoon splits were striking. Lefties put up a monster wOBA (remember, this is on an OBP scale) .402 wOBA against Weber last year compared to a .262 mark for righties. Over his career, those numbers are .368 and .296, respectively. This was an issue in the minors, too, as he had very heavy platoon splits in each of the last two seasons in Triple-A.
Looking for the issue, there certainly wasn’t any specific pitch that didn’t do significantly worse against lefties compared to righties. Weber is essentially a three-pitch pitcher with a sinker, a curveball and a changeup. All of those pitches got hit harder by lefties. That said, the changeup stands out to me as the weapon that could potentially make things closer to even if it won’t turn into an Eduardo Rodriguez kind of offering. That pitch was dominant on the occasions he used it against righties, but even against lefties it allowed an average exit velocity of 86 mph and the expected wOBA of the pitch was only .310, although the actual results (.346 wOBA) were much worse than that. Despite the solid results on balls in play — and I’ll mention again that this is a tiny sample — he threw the changeup less than 20 percent of the time against lefties. If he’s going to turn around these platoon splits, the best path is likely using that changeup much more consistently.
If and when the season gets underway, Ryan Weber may or may not be part of the rotation. By that point, both Chris Sale and Collin McHugh could potentially be healthy, leaving Weber in a different position than he found himself when the baseball world stopped. That said, there’s a good chance he’ll have to play some sort of depth role in 2020. For him to be the best version of himself possible, he’s going to have to be better against lefties. And to do that, he should probably use that changeup a little more often.
Note: A previous version of this post indicated Weber was out of minor-league options, but he does have one remaining.