Pulling Everything Into Focus
Long Beach State righthander Jeff Weaver maximized his mental and physical potential to take himself to the top of the draft
By Will Kimmey
LONG BEACH--A handful of Long Beach State players and coaches made the short trip to Anaheim in mid-April to watch former Dirtbags shortstop Bobby Crosby play for the Athletics. Jered Weaver walked past his coaches' seats when a woman in her 50s tapped one of them on the shoulder and asked, "Is that Jered Weaver?" She wanted to have her picture taken with the 21-year-old.
Pitching coach Troy Buckley admits he was surprised Weaver got picked out of the crowd, but he figured she was a local fan. "I'm from Michigan," she replied. "But we've read all about him."
It was just another day in the circus that has surrounded the Long Beach State team this year, one that has drawn boys and girls and scouts of all ages to watch the junior righthander put up astonishing numbers in start after start.
Long Beach State's attendance has increased by more than 200 fans a game this year, from 1,269 in 2003 to 1,496. On nights when Weaver starts, attendance spikes to 1,910. That figure includes a section of shovel-swinging students who sit halfway up the bleachers behind the Long Beach dugout (just in front of Weaver's parents, Dave and Gail) and alternately chant "BURY-HIM" and "WEA-VER" when their hero gets two strikes on a batter. Long Beach State's marketing crew even sold a ticket package that included Weaver's Friday appearances, which always begin with Gary Wright's 1976 hit "Dream Weaver" playing over the loudspeakers.
"He's a cult hero in Long Beach," Buckley says. "He's brought more attention to our program than any one player ever has. People not involved in college baseball are getting excited at getting the chance to see one of the best pitchers in competition at the college level."
Weaver's a draw on the road as well, attracting season-high crowds for his starts at Cal Poly (3,279), Cal State Fullerton (3,317) and UC Riverside (1,082). Then there are the media requests. Five to 10 media members call the school each week to schedule interviews. Sure, there are the locals, but USA Today, Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine have also dispatched reporters to chronicle the Weaver Show.
"He handled it all well," his father Dave says. "He never lets anything bother him."
Nor has he let any of those onlookers leave disappointed. Weaver struck out 14 Southern California batters in his second start of the season, including the first 10. He replicated that feat a few weeks later against Brigham Young and finished with 15 K's. Every time Weaver authors a jaw-dropping performance, he seems to top it his next outing.
"Jered set the expectations so high early on that everyone thinks he is Superman," Dave Weaver says. "The bar is set so high that he can't match it."
Yet he always does. Weaver followed the BYU game, when he allowed an earned run(!), by allowing just a single over eight innings against UCLA and feeding the frenzy with 15 more strikeouts. Then he punched out 16 in six innings against Wichita State, tying a career high. He has won 14 of 15 starts in reeling off a 14-0, 1.27 record with 171 strikeouts, which is 36 more than his closest competitor in the country. He has 11 double-digit strikeout games this season and now holds the game, season and career whiff records at Long Beach.
There's really only one person who doesn't get excited by all this.
"I don't care about any of it," Weaver says. "I care about pitching. I'm not a stat guy. I can't tell you what my ERA is now. I just go out there and do what I do. It's going good so far; it's just a matter of keeping it going. The only thing I really pay attention to is walks. I don't like to walk people."
While he has been a Superman of sorts on the mound, Weaver is a Southern California version of Clark Kent off it. He's got the laid-back, relaxed personality anyone might expect of the typical SoCal kid. "I'm just a pretty mellow guy," he says. "I'm mellow off the field; on the field I'm a big competitor."
It's easy to picture Weaver asleep on the beach, stretched out across his boogie board with his shoulder-length blond hair in his face. Then he wakes up from his nap, ducks into the clubhouse--because at 6-foot-7 he wouldn't fit into a phone booth--and emerges in his superhero garb: the pinstriped uniform with BEACH across the front, the one he always chooses to wear when he starts. The superhero doesn't see what the big deal is. He's just pitching, not saving lives. He's just another Dirtbag, not a star.
"All this success hasn't changed him," says junior catcher Brad Davis, who lives with Weaver and second baseman Chuck Sindlinger in an off-campus apartment. "He's still the same guy he was coming in here two seasons ago."
Expectations have never fazed him, either. And there were plenty, growing up six years behind his brother Jeff and garnering constant comparisons. Jeff set the career strikeout record at Fresno State and was the 14th overall pick in the 1998 draft before Jered even made varsity in high school.
Weaver has matched his brother's success so far because he embraced it, wearing Jeff's No. 25 at Simi Valley High, even after it was retired during his senior year when Jeff broke into the majors with the Tigers. "He was independent enough that it didn't bother him," says his high school coach, Joe Gordon. Now Weaver wears the same No. 36 at Long Beach State that Jeff dons for the Dodgers.
He pulls on that jersey before delivering a school-record 17 strikeouts against Pacific. He allows no walks and just two hits--none after the fourth inning--in a shutout. He has upped the ante again. But Weaver acts no different after the game than he did before. That his team won--and took another step toward his goal of reaching Omaha--gives him the most pleasure. That he didn't issue a walk probably comes second.
"The pride he has taken in his results comes from his focus on each pitch," Long Beach coach Mike Weathers says. "And after that pitch is away, he's focusing on the next one."
Weaver maintains singular focus every time he takes the mound for a game, a bullpen session--even in shadow drills, when he pitches without a ball and then runs through where he's supposed to be after the ball is in play. The mound is a place he describes as sacred.
Buckley cites Weaver's focus and mental preparation as one of the biggest reasons for his success. "I think that's been great with Jered," his mother Gail says. "That's the biggest thing I've seen change with him, his ability to focus."
The impeccable command of an 88-94 mph fastball, two-plane slider and changeup that gets in on lefties also help, but focus is what separates Weaver from the other pitchers in college baseball.
"That is a tremendous advantage," says South Carolina coach Ray Tanner, who managed Weaver last summer with Team USA. "He does a tremendous job of preparing himself mentally. You have to give a player credit for having a plan and focus and making adjustments.
Weaver faced the host Dominican Republic, with 13 former big leaguers on its roster, in the round-robin of the Pan American Games for Team USA, combining with Texas reliever Huston Street on a two-hit shutout, and Tanner set his rotation so Weaver faced Cuba in the gold-medal game. "You can hardly tell a difference (in his demeanor) when he's not doing good," Tanner says. "Some pitchers can hardly survive when they don't have their best stuff, but he was so focused I couldn't tell when he did and when he didn't."
Weaver started gathering his focus in high school. "The first game after I brought him up to varsity as a sophomore, I told him it was important to keep your composure on the mound," Gordon says. "I told him, 'I'm going to keep you in if you strike out every batter or give up 10 home runs. But if you show your emotions, I'm going to take you out.' "
The mental training has continued at Long Beach State under sports psychology consultant Ken Ravizza. A kinesiology professor at Cal State Fullerton, Ravizza spent 16 years working with the Angels and two with the Dodgers. Now he does individual consulting for college teams and eight major leaguers. He worked with former Long Beach coach Dave Snow when Snow was a pitching coach at Fullerton, and Snow brought many of Ravizza's ideas to the Beach in 1989. Weathers has continued working with Ravizza since taking over from Snow in 2001.
Ravizza meets with the players in a classroom setting during January practices before school gets back in session, laying out his approach, one centered around a phrase that's a baseball cliché: One pitch at a time.
Ravizza gives the old saw meaning, however. It encompasses a player controlling himself, forcing himself to commit fully to each pitch and trusting his abilities. While some players laugh off "the mental game," Weaver takes it as seriously as he does throwing the perfect slider with a full count and the bases loaded. He has to. He might not succeed in that situation without it.
"It's about not wearing your heart on your sleeve," Weaver says. "You just worry about what you can control and think about the next pitch."
"It's like a 3-year-old playing with a fire truck," Ravizza says. "That 3-year-old is totally absorbed in playing with that fire truck and doesn't notice anything around him. For a pitcher, it's not worrying about the last pitch, or the umpire who makes mistakes because he's working a part-time job, or an error made in the field."
Ravizza illustrates his point by taping two baseballs together. One represents the previous pitch, and the other the next pitch. "It's harder to throw like that, huh?" The mindset is about the process, getting in position to succeed rather than simply going after the results.
The coaching staff reinforces the approach in practice by stressing focus and commitment to each act, quality over quantity, even if it takes 13 minutes to get a bunting station completed correctly rather than the scheduled 10.
"Jered does a tremendous job of that, committing to each pitch," Weathers says. "No matter if it's a ball or not where he wanted it, you don't see that long face or the frustration. That's part of the mental training."
Ravizza says the key to staying focused on each pitch comes from keeping perspective through time and space cues, and a routine to help deliver those cues. For a pitcher, the routine begins with stepping on the rubber. That's when his focus turns to that pitch and that batter--and nothing else.
Weaver's routine is lengthy. But it's what gets him focused each inning. After completing his warmup tosses, he gets the ball back from the second baseman after the catcher's throw down. Then he walks halfway between the mound and second base and bends straight down, facing the outfield for five toe touches. Still bent over, Weaver kicks out each leg behind him, first the right, then the left. Then he stands erect and bends each leg back at the knee to stretch his quads, first the right, then the left. He crosses his wrists above his head to make an X to center fielder Josh Buhagiar. It stands for "external," a reminder to let whatever's going on in his mind flow out and focus on the matter at hand.
Weaver shakes his arm loose walking back to the mound before stopping to scratch EHH--the intials of his maternal grandparents Ed and Helen Hamlin--into the back side of the mound with his finger.
The routine continues on the mound before each pitch. Weaver takes a deep breath before bringing his hands set with his glove high, covering his mouth and nose so just his blue eyes are staring between his black Rawlings glove and black cap. He takes another breath before beginning his whirling dervish windup. Weaver twists his upper half so the hitter can read both the 3 and the 6 on his back before uncoiling from a high three-quarters arm slot. He often finishes with his back leg knifing up in the air. All the while, his hair--uncut since his mom persuaded him to trim it just before the Team USA trials last June--flows out of the back of his cap like a mane.
Weaver's routine even includes a few game-day traditions, or superstitions. He eats a California turkey sandwich at Hector's restaurant before every start, and his mother hands him two Snickers bars and some sunflower seeds just before the game starts.
"You have idiosyncrasies you do everyday when you wake up in the morning," Buckley says. "It becomes a routine when you are aware of them. It allows him to focus and funnel in when he's on the mound."
If Weaver steps on the rubber and feels his focus drifting, he steps off. He walks down the slope and stands on the grass, which has a distinctly different feel than the mound. He gathers himself and heads back to the mound when he gets refocused. Orel Hershiser employed this same technique during his major league-record streak of 59 scoreless innings for the Dodgers in 1988. Weaver ran off a similar streak last summer with Team USA, going 45 2/3 innings without yielding a run.
The normally subdued Weaver buys into what Ravizza sells so much that he shushed a talkative group of freshmen during his sophomore year. "Hey, listen to this guy," he said. "What he's talking about is going to help you." He also has discussed these ideas with Jeff, who was known for his volatility during his younger days with the Tigers and Yankees. Weaver has looked a bit more under control on the mound this season with the Dodgers. "I'm not about to give a big leaguer advice," the younger brother says, "but I've told him a little about it."
Weaver's unwavering focus is even more impressive considering that as a youngster he dealt with attention deficit disorder. It made schoolwork a struggle at times.
"It's kind of hard to describe. I'd just be looking around and if something flew by, I'd definitely look at it and not pay attention if we're talking," Weaver says. "I wouldn't even realize I was having a conversation with somebody."
Weaver has grown out of the ADD, though he still suffers from occasional concentration lapses. He'll drift off in a group instruction session at practice from time to time, forcing Buckley to give a quick snap. "Hey, Weave, over here." And he can rarely watch an entire baseball game, unless his brother is pitching. "I think that has something to do with the ADD," he says, "but it's not as bad as it used to be." He quickly adds that it never happens on the field, when he's focusing.
Scouts have spent the season focusing on Weaver. They're not seeing the same pitcher Buckley described as "6-foot-4 with no chest and no butt" while recruiting him. Weaver weighed about 20 pounds less than the 205 he carries now--and he still would like to put on some weight.
"He was throwing 86-88 (mph) then, but there wasn't a light bulb going off that said this guy's legit," Gordon says. "Most people, because of his brother, expected this out of him anyway."
Weaver has had to work to get where he is; it didn't just happen. "You come in and people say he's here because he's Jeff Weaver's brother," he says. "But I've proved myself." He credits Buckley, whom he likens to a second father, with a major assist.
Buckley has helped Weaver transform himself from a projectable prep into the projected No. 1 overall pick this June. He worked with Weaver to keep his head still during his delivery. Keeping it in line over the rubber allows Weaver to use the muscles in his back, rear end and legs for an extra push and extra velocity. He still has a deceptive delivery because he keeps his back to the batter so long before opening up to deliver the ball by making sure his front shoulder stays closed. If he opens up too early, the batter can pick up the ball more easily, and Weaver also loses some of his push.
Buckley got Weaver to raise his arm slot from low three-quarters to a higher, power three-quarters motion. He allowed Weaver to keep throwing the curveball he used in high school, but helped him add a new slider grip. He got him to throw that changeup that's so effective against lefthanders. It's a pitch that scouts say separates him from his brother.
Then there's the pinpoint command. Buckley credits Weaver's athleticism and body feel for his accuracy. He often can tell where the pitch will end up in the middle of his delivery. "If there's something where I don't feel right when I release a pitch, I know it's not going where I want it to go," he says. "If it feels right, you know it's going to be a good pitch. If you do something wrong, you feel it and correct it." That feel and command allows him to succeed while using 80-85 percent fastballs and pitching mostly at 88-91 mph.
"He can really put his fastball to both sides of the plate," an AL scouting director says. "He can pitch with his fastball now and get out big leaguers. He can get guys out in the strike zone. In pro ball, that goes a long way."
Weaver proved that for Team USA last summer. He worked in a pro environment, facing hitters with wood bats and starting every fifth day rather than once a week. The fatigue pulled his velocity down at times to 85-88, but he still posted a 0.38 ERA and that scoreless streak before yielding two runs to Cuba in the gold-medal game of the Pan Ams. The loss still strikes at his competitive spirit. "It stunk. Why did I have to give up those runs in the gold-medal game?" he says. "I remember standing on that podium getting a silver medal, wishing it was gold."
Weaver will get another grab for gold soon. He tries to keep things in perspective, constantly reminding everyone he's focused on reaching the College World Series at the end of June more than he's eyeing the draft at the beginning of the month. His dominance this season could lead to trips to both Omaha and San Diego, as the Padres have the first pick in the draft.
"He's set himself apart at this level," Tanner says. "It seemed like every time when he was out there (for Team USA), we knew we were going to win. You have those guys who give you a chance to win, but with him it's a really good chance."
Given Weaver's dominance, it's a wonder the Padres haven't already started negotiating. His season statistics outweigh what Mark Prior did at Southern California in 2001, the year many dubbed Prior the best college pitcher ever. And the game against UCLA in March happened to be at the Padres' new stadium, Petco Park. Wasn't the 15-K salute a tribute to the collection of San Diego officials, including general manager Kevin Towers, in attendance?
"Until June 7 a lot can happen," Padres scouting director Bill Gayton says. "Jered's been on our short list of players throughout the spring, but we didn't decide who we're going to select in March. We didn't stop scouting in March."
Scouts point out Prior's fastball topped out at 96 with similar command, while his 12-to-6 curveball was also a plus-plus pitch. Weaver's breaking ball rates between average and above-average, depending on the scout.
"There's no comparison," an NL scouting director says. "Just because people have (similar) success doesn't mean they're comparable. Mark Prior was very special."
Still, the scouting directors must pick players from the available pool. And it's hard to find a player more complete, more polished, more focused, more special than Weaver this year. Just ask that excited Michigander at the Angels game.