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Weaver putting new spin on old-school approach

Young righty working on incorporating slurve after relying on fastball-changeup mix throughout career
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- By the end of last season, Luke Weaver says, opposing hitters began to figure him out. Few starting pitchers were more spin-averse than the 23-year-old righty, who navigated most of the 60 1/3-innings of his rookie season with just two distinct pitches, adding and subtracting from them all the way.

Eighty-five percent of Weaver's pitches were either four-seam fastballs or changeups, a whopping number that looked less out of place in St. Louis' rotation (alongside heater-happy Lance Lynn and changeup specialist Michael Wacha) than it did across the Majors, where only five starters threw fewer breaking balls.

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JUPITER, Fla. -- By the end of last season, Luke Weaver says, opposing hitters began to figure him out. Few starting pitchers were more spin-averse than the 23-year-old righty, who navigated most of the 60 1/3-innings of his rookie season with just two distinct pitches, adding and subtracting from them all the way.

Eighty-five percent of Weaver's pitches were either four-seam fastballs or changeups, a whopping number that looked less out of place in St. Louis' rotation (alongside heater-happy Lance Lynn and changeup specialist Michael Wacha) than it did across the Majors, where only five starters threw fewer breaking balls.

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:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Relying heavily on his two best pitches worked for Weaver in college at Florida State, where he blossomed into a first-round Draft pick. It worked in the Minors, where he excelled at every level, then again, after some initial hiccups, in the big leagues. Until it didn't.

"If you only have two pitches, you better have some pretty darn good stuff," Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux says.

Over his first eight starts last summer, Weaver owned a 2.27 ERA. He then allowed 14 earned runs in 7 2/3 innings over his last two starts, both stretch-run losses to the Brewers and Cubs.

"It got a little fastball-changeup heavy," said Weaver, who threw four perfect innings with four strikeouts in Sunday's 4-3 win over the Nationals. "I think we needed to incorporate a third pitch into that."

Tweet from @JoeTrezz: Only five starters in all of baseball threw fewer breaking balls than Luke Weaver last year, when he was truly and strictly a fastball/changeup pitcher. That might change this year ... but this is what that looked like. #STLCards pic.twitter.com/JQaQC5IfaH

Enter the focus of Weaver's spring: his curveball.

"Or, 'Slurve-ball,'" Weaver said. "Whatever you want to call it."

Semantics aside, it's the wrinkle Weaver knows he'll need to establish himself at this level, that third trick successful starters use to steer themselves out of trouble, or to set up their swing-and-miss stuff. Weaver said he feels more confident now than ever in the pitch, which he considered for so long a work in progress.

"It's become the third pitch that's really helping to balance me overall," Weaver said. "I felt like earlier last year, in Triple-A, the curveball was just a show pitch. It was a steal-a-strike kind of thing. Once I got to St. Louis, the fastball-changeup was working really well. ... I would say, at this moment, I have three legit pitches I am confident in and that I can throw in any count and feel good about."

Video: WSH@STL: Weaver fans Adams to strike out the side

Getting here required Weaver to search for assurance in an antiquated approach, for confidence in a style long left behind. Why does he call his curveball a "slurve ball"? Because it breaks in an uncommonly horizontal way, a byproduct of an arm slot, size and delivery with few comps in the modern game.

"Yeah," Maddux nods. "He's a little different that way."

Simply put, there aren't many modern pitchers who push themselves off the rubber the way Weaver does. And that puts Weaver's arm in a weird spot. Most today are taught to "get tall and fall," to create torque behind a stiff front leg. Weaver "drops and drives," powering toward the plate from a throwing position lower than his starting point.

Tweet from @JoeTrezz: Humor me as I playing around with @Statcast™ new 3D pitch visuals.We don't think of Luke Weaver as a deception guy, but look how different an arm slot his "drop and drive" delivery gives him. If he can command his curve, his arm angle will give it some unusually horizontal tilt. pic.twitter.com/27toOk0rEo

If Weaver pitches during St. Louis' opening series at Citi Field, his delivery will mirror the photographs of Tom Seaver lining the inner hallways there more closely than the windups used by any starter in either dugout. Weaver calls it "working from the ground up," so much so he wore pads in the Minors to protect his knees from self-inflicted wear and tear.

"I'd hit my knee on the ground or swing my elbow into my knee. It felt like someone punched me," Weaver said. "I've learned to try not to change my delivery, but I've had to tinker with it a little bit so I'm not continually beating the crap out of myself without even throwing the ball."

All of which makes him the perfect pupil for Maddux, who has been telling his new pitchers to look for extra outs up in the zone all spring. Working low to high is "easier the lower you start," Maddux says, and it could be more effective than ever in this launch-angle-loving world.

"The game is changing," Maddux said. "There are more low ball hitters, more upper cuts."

Which, in theory, opens the top of the zone for the four-seamers Weaver loves to throw. Which then, in theory, should free the bottom of the zone for his changeups. When his vertical maneuvering becomes too predictable, that's where the curve comes in. Weaver plans to dabble more this year on the strike zone's left-to-right plane, now that he finally has a feel for it.

"You watch [Adam] Wainwright, [Clayton] Kershaw, these guys with giant, nasty curveballs. You don't see a guy typically whipping in a slurve from a side angle. Jose Fernandez was very well known for that. But for me, that never really clicked with my game," Weaver said. "I felt like I had to get on top of it, throw it 12-to-6, when really my arm slot is three quarters, so I had to throw it 11-to-5. I had to stop trying to make that happen and instead get to my natural position and realize it's OK for it to look like that, as long as it has good movement. When I finally got over that hump, that's when it began working better."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Luke Weaver