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Quick look: Jordan Weems throws strikes, saves bullpen in MLB debut

The rookie went three efficient innings on Tuesday to give his tired teammates a rest

MLB: JUL 12 Athletics Summer Camp
Just go home, fellow relievers. I got this.
Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Oakland A’s had an MLB debut on Tuesday, as pitcher Jordan Weems came out of the bullpen to make his first career appearance against the Colorado Rockies.

The 27-year-old right-hander has a particularly interesting backstory, as he was drafted as a catcher before converting to the mound in 2016. He signed with the A’s as a minor league free agent last winter, and got the call for the expanded Opening Day roster last week.

We got one look at Weems during the preseason exhibition games against the Giants, but he only threw four pitches so it was a fleeting glimpse. Now we’ve got more data to work with, as he finally made his regular season debut this week and threw three full innings.

The situation was somewhere between middle relief and mop-up duty. With the bullpen tired from an early heavy workload, his primary responsibility was to soak up innings and let his teammates rest. But at the same time, the score was only 3-1, so it was still a ballgame and some zeroes on the scoreboard would be nice.

He succeeded in one of those goals, and was slightly better than it appears in the other department.

Weems, Tue: 3 ip, 2 runs, 3 Ks, 0 BB, 4 hits, 0 HR, 33 pitches (24 strikes)

Love the zero walks out of 13 batters faced, and the related high strike percentage, as well as the ball staying in the park. His six swinging strikes in 33 pitches gave him an excellent 18% rate. The runs hurt any chance of a comeback attempt, but they were a little bit flukey and not entirely his fault. Statcast was a fan of the performance, measuring an extremely low .187 xwOBA — currently the best mark on the A’s.

Here’s a closer look at the outing.

5th inning

Weems set the tone right away with his first batter: Throw hard, and throw strikes. Trevor Story is a quality MLB hitter who received All-Star berths and downballot MVP votes each of the last two years, but the righty couldn’t do anything with four straight 96-97 mph fastballs — three of them in the zone, one of which he couldn’t catch up with when he swung. Strike 3 was nicely painted on the inside corner.

The second batter, lefty Charlie Blackmon, wasn’t waiting around to let the rookie get into a groove. The four-time All-Star slugger dropped a bunt on the first pitch, and it worked. See the game recap for more details, but the short version is this: Matt Chapman usually makes this play, but he didn’t this time and Weems might have affected things by slightly getting in the way. But the bottom line is, there was now a runner on base, who usually wouldn’t have made it there even though it wasn’t a fielding error, and it had nothing to do with the pitching because it was a first-pitch bunt.

Things almost got away from Weems after that. One byproduct of throwing lots of strikes is that you eventually give the opponent something to hit, and the Rockies took advantage. The next three batters made solid contact and earned singles, though again two of them were long-time stars in righty Nolan Arenado (perennial MVP candidate) and lefty Daniel Murphy (three-time All-Star) — this isn’t an easy lineup to face.

The singles parade drove home Blackmon, but if Chapman had gotten him like he usually gets speedster Dee Gordon on similar bunts then maybe these subsequent hits would have been harmless.

Murphy’s at-bat was notable because it brought the first offspeed pitches by Weems. The first 83 mph change missed badly, but the second one nailed the outside edge of the zone and successfully induced the grounder that could have been an inning-ending GIDP; instead, it found a hole. Game of inches. The final hit, by lefty Ryan McMahon off a fastball, was smashed but was also just a grounder.

With the bases now loaded, Weems’ first pitch to lefty Raimel Tapia was another changeup, and it earned an out when Tapia skied it to nowhere. However, the ball did make it deep enough to be a sac fly, and CF Ramon Laureano’s great throw missed nabbing the runner at home plate by, again, inches at most.

That brought up Sam Hilliard, a rookie lefty who had already homered in the game. Weems pumped two 96 mph fastballs by him for swinging strikes, and then laid in a perfectly located change that broke beneath Hilliard’s swing while still clipping the bottom of the zone (so it would have been called anyway).

Two runs came in, but I liked this inning by Weems. He filled up the zone and made the hitters beat him, and even when a couple of them did just that, they felt like good pieces of hitting against quality pitches rather than a rookie hurler making mistakes. Because he was aggressive in the zone, he didn’t run up deep counts, and these seven batters took him only 16 pitches (12 strikes).

As for the damage, there were no extra-base hits, and three of the singles were a bunt and two grounders. Both runs were preventable if the A’s elite defense had lived up to its usual standards — not a complaint, just observing that they do often get these outs.

I’m not the best at scouting a pitcher’s stuff, but I can read numbers and I know 97 is a fairly high one in terms of velocity. I also loved the changeup, which he located well and with double-digit velo separation from the heater.

6th inning

From here, Weems settled down. He never allowed another baserunner, retiring his final seven hitters beginning with the Hilliard strikeout.

The 6th inning took only seven pitches. Weems nibbled a bit around lefty Tony Wolters (the No. 9 hitter), but eventually induced a well-hit liner right at an infielder. It was sort of the opposite of the grounders that found fortunate holes in the 5th, as this could reasonably have been a hit with its .550 expected batting average.

Next up, lefty David Dahl and then Story, understanding at this point that patience wasn’t going to help against a strike machine, both swung at first-pitch fastballs in the zone and flew out weakly. I especially liked the pitch to Dahl, which jammed him up and in and resulted in essentially a deep popout (caught by the shortstop).

7th inning

Another breeze, requiring only 10 pitches. Blackmon led off and this time he swung, ripping a first-pitch fastball in the zone for a hard but routine grounder for the first out. Arenado went down quickly. Murphy worked a three-ball count, as Weems missed with a couple changeups, but eventually succumbed and whiffed on a 3-2 fastball perfectly in the lower-inside corner.

Note that Weems did begin to lose some steam at this point, with his heater ticking down toward 94 mph on a few occasions, but it was still getting the job done and he did still hit 96 once each in the final at-bats against Arenado and Murphy.

Final takes

I liked this debut and I want to see more. Anytime someone is available off the scrap heap you should keep your expectations low, and success is measured in simply becoming an MLB contributor rather than necessarily blossoming into a star. But in that sense, I don’t see why Weems can’t pan out as a viable reliever. There’s even an explanation for his easy availability, since he hasn’t been a pro pitcher for very long and is new to the prospect radar.

I can’t stress enough how good his control was. Check out his pitch chart:

Credit: Baseball Savant

There are a few extreme outliers, but almost everything is within the zone. I don’t even mind those wild ones — if he’s going to miss (which everyone does occasionally), then may as well miss by enough that you’re not hanging a meatball for the hitter to pound. My favorite part is those changeups (green dots) peppered all around the precise edges of the zone.

This is just one game, so there’s still everything for Weems to prove, and he’ll have to respond to league adjustments as teams see him more. But it’s tough to reasonably imagine a better first impression — tons of strikes, thrown at high velocity, with at least one good secondary offering, all resulting in generally weak contact and just a handful of low-percentage hits. The A’s don’t have to pick between a player who gets results and one who looks like Fabio, because in this case they might potentially have both.