Alex Wood Is for Real

When Alex Wood broke into the majors in 2013 as a member of the Braves bullpen, there were more questions than answers regarding his long-term outlook. A fastball/changeup lefty, Wood lacked the third pitch that is so crucial for sustained success in a major-league rotation. He also relied on a funky delivery to generate deception. Whether that delivery remained deceptive after hitters got used to it was one question; whether Wood could stay healthy with his high-effort delivery was another.

Tim Hudson’s mid-season 2013 injury gave Wood a chance to show what he could do as a starter. In his 11 starts, Wood allowed plenty of baserunners (1.45 per inning), but largely mitigated that issue by allowing just 14 extra-base hits in those 11 starts. All told, his work as a starter was largely promising:

  • 3.54 ERA, 8.68 K/9, 3.54 BB/9, .273/.340/.366 opponents’ slash

In 2014, the 23-year-old broke camp as a starter with the Braves, before a crowded rotation pushed him back to the bullpen for a month, from mid-May to mid-June. Again, I’m far more interested in what Wood did as a starter than as a reliever, so let’s check out how he fared in 24 starts this year:

  • 2.59 ERA, 8.69 K/9, 2.25 BB/9, .232/.286/.347 opponents’ slash

I’m seeing plenty to like here. Wood knocked a full run off his ERA, improved on his walk rate by more than one-third, and generally did a tremendous job limiting baserunners (1.09 WHIP). Regarding power, opposing hitters had a bit more luck off Wood in 2014 than in 2013, but the sharp decrease in baserunners more than balanced that out.

So, how did he do it? The first part of that answer lies in his breaking ball. (I didn’t intend — at least consciously — to spend the whole week writing about fastball/changeup lefties who finally developed a decent breaking pitch, yet here we are.) Wood threw a loopy slurve in the minors, but that offering has been refined into a pretty darn good knuckle-curve.

Even a glance at Wood’s pitch usage between 2013 and 2014 indicates how much confidence he developed in his curve:

  • 2013 – 64.2% fastballs, 14.1% curveballs, 21.4% changeups
  • 2014 – 57.7% fastballs, 22.6% curveballs, 19.5% changeups

He had every reason to believe in his curve in 2014, as the more he threw it, the more whiffs the pitch generated:

wood curveball

For the last three months of this season, Wood was generating whiffs with nearly 20% of the curveballs he threw. Now armed with three major-league quality pitches, he saw a dramatic increase in his ability to make hitters chase pitches outside the zone. From 2013 to 2014, Wood’s O-Swing% soared from 23.7% to 30.9%.

Regarding health, Wood missed his final scheduled start of 2014 with a mild forearm strain, but he’s managed to stay completely healthy other than that. He had Tommy John surgery in 2009, forcing him to miss all but one appearance of the 2010 season. Since then, he’s shown that there’s little reason to doubt his ability to stay on the field, despite his unorthodox delivery:

  • 2011 (college) – 93.1 IP
  • 2012 (college/A) – 155 IP
  • 2013 (AA/AAA/MLB) – 140 IP
  • 2014 (AAA/MLB) – 180.1 IP

Another important note for fantasy purposes is that he picked up just eight wins in his 24 starts, but that’s largely attributable to the fact that he garnered just 2.75 runs per game of support. The only starter who received less support was Eric Stults, at 2.53 runs. Projecting wins is always difficult, but keep this anomaly in mind when assessing Wood’s 2015 value.

Our experts had him slotted in as the No. 63 starting pitcher coming into the year, but Wood ended up as a top-30 option. Looking ahead to 2015, there’s not much reason to expect a whole lot of regression. Sure, he might not match his 2.78 ERA from last season, but I wouldn’t expect him to produce any worse than the mid-3.00 range.

He’s now four years removed from Tommy John, with very few signs of ill effects. He’s developed a strong three-pitch repertoire and — despite the funky delivery — has a body type (6’4″, 215) that can eat some serious innings. I won’t hesitate to take him as a top-30 starter next year, and you shouldn’t either.

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Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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Wood or Salazar if you can only have one?

Paul
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Paul

Always go with the NL guy if it is close. But in this case, I am not sure it is that close. Wood has been far better than Salazar so far.