Pitcher Spotlight: The Real Alex Wood

I did not have high expectations for Alex Wood heading into this season. His early 2017 success was fueled by an uptick in velocity that dwindled through the year, he hadn’t eclipsed 153 innings since 2015, and the Dodgers are, ahem, interesting with their starting rotations. I didn’t expect the shiny new-out-of-the-box 2017 edition Alex Wood to be the real Alex Wood.

And as expected, Wood’s velocity has been dramatically low in 2018, boasting a 90mph sinker after last season’s 92mph average (and averaging 93mph in the opening months), but you wouldn’t have known it if you compared his numbers:

Alex Wood 2017 vs. 2018
Year ERA WHIP K-BB% Whiff % Fastball Velocity
2017 2.72 1.06 18.4% 11.7% 91.8mph
2018 3.32 1.02 18.3% 11.1% 89.9mph

I love this. The end result is the same, though Wood’s lower velocity should tell you that he can’t be holding the same approach for the same results. It’s not out of the question, but seeing his dip in heat has to make you believe there is something else going on under the hood.

And there is.

Okay, of course there is, we wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t something but I’m dramatic and like to have fun with these articles. I’ll jump straight to the point, for your sake. Alex Wood’s secondary pitches are killing it.

Wait, no. Well, yes, but there’s more to it than that. To start, let me show you Wood’s approach shift from 2017 to 2018:

Alex Wood’s Pitch Mix
Year Fastball usage Changeup usage Curveball usage
2017 50.4% 25.4% 24.1%
2018 42.6% 30.1% 27.3%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

Wood is throwing fewer heaters in favor of changeups and curveballs. This makes sense since a lower velocity should dictate worse performance for a fastball, which Wood is masking my throwing more secondary pitches instead. What doesn’t make sense is how Wood’s fastball is actually performing better.

Alex Wood’s Pitch Mix…Again
Year Fastball usage Fastball pVal Changeup usage Changeup pVal Curveball usage Curveball pVal
2017 50.4% 5.8 25.4% 15 24.1% 5.3
2018 42.6% 4.8 30.1% 3.4 27.3% 0.4
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

Pitch values are weird and easily fluctuate based on BABIP and longballs, but nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see the “less is more” approach from Wood’s heater despite having a larger hill to climb at two ticks slower. It could be that increasing the number of slower pitches through his changeup and curveball are amplifying the speed of his heater. It could be that he’s setting batters up more. It could be sheer luck. One thing is for sure, Wood wouldn’t be able to get away with this if he didn’t have secondary pitches that could make it work.

Breaking Ball

So let’s talk about them. The most intriguing one to me is his breaking ball and I’m using that term on purpose. I understand it to be a knuckle-curveball, yet Pitch Type data and Pitchf/x seem to believe Wood has switched from a deuce to a slider in 2018. Here’s a comparison of the two:

First from 2017:

And here from 2018:

After swearing under my breath that Miami changed their camera angle, I was able to note that the recent version is a bit tighter. Less of a loop and a sharper bite, and it may be why the classification has changed. But looking at their numbers, it’s clear this is the same offering:

Alex Wood’s Breaking Ball
Year GB % BAA O-Swing % Zone % Whiff %
2017 64.6% .203 47.0% 38.8% 18.5%
2018 46.7% .214 48.3% 38.8% 20.4%

The pitch has also lost about an inch and a half of vertical bend with the same velocity, which would explain the decrease in grounders, though it hasn’t changed the pitch from missing plenty of bats. This is a different breaking ball from Wood, but in the end, the results are nearly identical – even with the shift in batted ball.

And that’s a fantastic thing. Often we have fun being the armchair manager. “Throw your splitter more!” we shout, not always with the understanding that you can’t expect a 15% thrown pitch to have identical success at 30% usage. And while this isn’t such an extreme case, replicating results despite an increase of usage is as ideal as it gets.

Changeup

You probably thought I was going to tell you that Wood’s changeup has gotten better. It hasn’t. Fewer chases out of the zone and a three-point drop in whiff rate result in an obvious dip in strikeouts, but 2017 was an incredible season for Wood’s changeup. This year’s iteration is still effective overall, especially in limiting damage, with just a .029 ISO allowed in 264 pitches thrown.

It simply works and while it’s not coming with the flash and zing that it had last year, it will continue to get outs and make batters frustrated.

And that’s about it. There isn’t much else to dive into with Wood’s changeup, except that it’s doing its thing despite a spike in reliance. You deserve a little morethough, so here’s a GIF where I combined a few swings and misses off his changeup this year.

See? Excellent pitch. The numbers like it, the eye test likes it, and Wood likes it. Sure, it’s not as amazing as last year, but just like the curveball rates going up, we should be happy to see that Wood’s still maintained his slow ball’s success as he’s ramped up its usage.

The Result

The point of this piece is to determine if we can depend on Wood’s adapted approach to continue his solid 2018 numbers through the year. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I often come out of these carrying an arrow like I’m directing you to a 50%-off sale, but here, I still have questions.

His curveball and changeup are doing great work. Wonderful work. Thus far they have been able to carry the load off his fastball enough and the argument can be made that a 90mph fastball can thrive if thrown roughly 40% of the time. I went into this expecting to find great examples of sequencing, pitch locations, or new movement on Wood’s sinker, and I have nothing for you. His whiff rate on sinkers had dropped two points – understandable given the velocity drop – but otherwise, well, it’s the same.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe Wood’s 2017 success wasn’t reliant on his velocity spike, but rather a combination of his approach and command. While his velocity has dropped it has created a larger room for error, but maybe Wood didn’t need that margin last year and he doesn’t need it now.

Maybe this is the real Alex Wood after all.





Nick Pollack is the founder of PitcherList.com and has written for Washington Post, Fantasy Pros, and CBS Sports. He can be found making an excessive amount of GIFs on twitter at @PitcherList.

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Alex Wood just keeps on doing his very effective thing. Apparently even the Braves’ player evaluators expected him to break down, lose effectiveness, or both, despite knowing him better than any other organization at the time when they shipped him to L.A. And yet, here he is, three years later, 27 years old and still just racking up WAR. His funky thing has pretty much only ever been effective.