One of the problems that Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Alex Wood has had with the ball club since the trade that brought him to the City of Angels near the trade deadline last season has been a constant bout of inconsistency. That same problem has reared its ugly head in the first three starts of the 2016 season for him, and it has to make some wonder if he’ll ever pay off for the Dodgers.
Last night, Wood went just four innings, gave up seven hits and three walks, and managed to also give up three earned runs (six runs totals) in a game that he made 88 pitches in. It wasn’t exactly a lovely return for Wood to his old Atlanta stomping grounds. So one might really be worrying that Wood’s run with the Dodgers will never fully work. Except, it really could work.
First things first, Alex Wood is a 25-year old left-hander that actually has achieved some viable success in Major League Baseball. In 2014, his first full season with the Atlanta Braves, Wood finished with a 2.78 ERA in 171.2 innings. In 24 starts that season, he actually had a 2.59 ERA and fanned 151 batters in 156.2 innings. He walked 39. In other words, he was really, really good.
Now, that doesn’t mean he’s ever going to recover the greatness that he achieved in that season, but it also doesn’t mean that he couldn’t. It’s a really tricky situation here. Not every pitcher is Tim Lincecum. What I mean by that is they don’t just fall off the face of the earth at the first sign of struggle. Most pitchers are able to at least bounce back in a justifiable way. There’s no evidence to support the theory that Wood couldn’t.
Then again, just because he could doesn’t mean he actually will. And this is where the evidence and tangible things of that nature come into play. For instance, after the Dodgers acquired him last season, Wood had an average exit velocity allowed of 87.9 miles per hour. So far, through three starts this season, he’s at 91.7 miles per hour.
Essentially, what this means is that opponents are hitting the ball, on average, four miles per hour harder against Wood this season with the Dodgers than they did after Los Angeles acquired him in 2015. This is still all a very small sample size, but it is interesting. The worrisome part is that he’s allowed 15 batted balls this season with an exit velocity of at least 100 miles per hour, and recorded just 11 with an exit velocity of 80 miles per hour or less.
On the flip side, Wood is generating a lot of ground balls. He’s gotten 40 ground balls already compared to 19 fly balls. The 67.3 percent ground ball rate that he has this season is by far a career-high for him if it were to stay at that level throughout the duration of the season. But a very troubling thing came to my attention during last night’s start in Atlanta.
That GIF you see right up above is Alex Wood’s release point by game this season. It starts off with his April 7 start against the San Francisco Giants, and then it works to his April 13 start against the Arizona Diamondbacks before finishing up with last night’s game against the Atlanta Braves. Take note of two interesting developments here in this one image.
In the start against San Francisco, his release point was lower. This led to him not finishing enough pitches with the proper results. In that start, his fastball registered at 92.02 miles per hour with a horizontal movement of 9.35 inches and a vertical movement of 7.00 inches. Compare that with the Atlanta start when everything he finished had arm side run, and his fastball, which is classified as a two-seamer, finished with a nearly identical 9.22 inches of horizontal movement and 7.27 inches of vertical movement.
The reason this is prevalent is because in the one lone start where he seemed to generate good results, which was the Arizona game, Wood’s two-seamer was the opposite of what it was in these other two starts. In the Arizona game, he had a horizontal movement of 7.72 inches and a vertical movement of 9.80 inches. This means he got on top of the ball more, which is exactly what you see out of his release point chart against Arizona. It was the highest average release point he’s had in a game this season.
When Wood is getting on top of the ball, he’s been fine. However, the instances when he’s getting around the ball and missing with arm side action, he gets into some serious trouble. This leads to his inaccuracy and issues. These same regularities can be found in another pitch of his — the changeup. And it all involves whether or not he gets on top of the pitch.
In the start against Arizona, his changeup had a horizontal movement of 9.71 inches and a vertical movement of 4.34 inches. The vertical movement came from him getting on top of the pitch more. It’s the main reason he was able to generate such weak contact on that pitch in that game. The spin rate on his changeup in that game was 1804 RPM.
In the San Francisco game, his changeup was at 10.95 inches of horizontal movement and just 1.91 inches of vertical movement. It had an RPM of 1815. Against Atlanta yesterday, he had 10.64 inches of horizontal movement and 1.85 inches of vertical movement. The spin rate on his changeup yesterday was 1830 RPM.
Everything here is connected. The more he gets on top of his pitches with his release point, the more he is able to generate downward movement and keep the spin rate down. Thus, he’s able to command the ball better and get easier outs. For instance, if you go back to his two-seam fastball then you’ll spot some very interesting developments with spin rate.
In the start last night, his two-seamer had a spin rate of 2087 RPM. Against San Francisco, it was 1960 RPM. However, against Arizona, his best start, it was all the way down to 1945 RPM. This essentially means that the higher his release point is, the less his ball rotates which means he gets extra sink on it and generates more ground ball chances.
The more Wood stays around his pitches rather than on top of his pitches, he’s going to have some major issues. All these issues are correctable if the coaching staff can iron out that deficiency. His delivery is funky, and there are a lot of moving parts, but it is something where you can look at the data and come up with an idea of where Wood can be the most effective for the Dodgers.
If the coaching staff and Wood can get him on track to finishing on top of his pitches rather than trying to whip his pitches, then he really could turn the corner and get back to where he was in 2014. It won’t be easy, but it is doable. The results are there, and it’s up to Alex Wood himself to unlock them. I do think he can do it.