Alex Wood and Self-Recovery

Plenty of people over the years have questioned Alex Wood’s ability to remain a starting pitcher, but what you at least couldn’t question, for a time, was how Wood as a starter performed. He was effective as a rookie in 2013, and then the next year, he posted numbers that, from an objective perspective, looked like they could’ve belonged to Cole Hamels. Wood struck out a quarter of the batters he faced, and while he’s never going to totally escape the skepticism, Wood looked like he was on to something. Then 2015 happened, and everything got worse. Wood found himself on the outside of the Dodgers’ rotation, looking in.

There’s a reason the Dodgers assembled so much depth, though — they knew they might run into injury problems, and already, it looks like Wood is going to be needed. That would be a good opportunity for anyone, but Wood feels like this is a chance to show off some adjustments he’s made. Everyone who shows up to spring training has a path to get better. Yet Wood isn’t trying to do anything new. If anything, he’s worked to be more like the Wood of old.

Mike Petriello just wrote a little about this. A couple weeks ago, Bill Plunkett wrote about this, and more recently, JP Hoornstra wrote about this. Plunkett and Hoornstra did the real reporting, so all credit to them; I just want to offer some supplemental information. Let’s talk about what Wood wants to get back to.

In the middle of last year, Wood sustained a bone bruise in his right foot (or ankle). It apparently didn’t feel much better until December, and this would be one reason why Wood was pretty ineffective with the Dodgers — his plant foot was hurting, and you plant before you ever release the baseball, which means there can be cascading effects on the delivery. This is going to be subtle, but here are comparative images of Wood before and after the injury:

Before, it looks like Wood has his right leg a little more underneath him, so to speak. After, it seems more like he’s favoring the right side, as if he’s trying to keep stress off the inner part of his foot. When you’re planting differently, you’re pitching differently, and Wood didn’t really have many options since the injury was giving him painful feedback. That’s something he had to pitch through, and one hopes that, moving forward, it’s all better. So that’s one thing.

But really, it might not be the most important thing. Yeah, Wood wished he didn’t hurt, but that happened only after his mechanics started to change in a different way. With the Braves in 2014, Wood struck out 24% of opponents. With the Braves in 2015 — almost entirely before getting hurt — Wood struck out 18% of opponents. He already had something of a different look, and it’s something he wanted to reverse. It’s awful difficult to change your mechanics on the fly during the year, especially when your plant foot hurts. So this became Wood’s offseason project, and to explain, here’s an excerpt from Hoornstra’s piece:

“My arm’s way higher. I’m behind the ball. Taller, stronger on my front side. A lot of major differences for sure,” Wood said.
Wood described his mechanical problems as a gradual decline that started sometime late in 2014 or early 2015.

The work he did over the winter “is just a good change back to where he was pre-whatever,” Honeycutt said. “It’s funny how in this game, we move and don’t really know it at the time. We compete, but sometimes we don’t know we’ve went as far as we’ve gone.”

Wood specifically notes that he’s raised his arm slot. He didn’t do this just to get a new look; he did this because, for whatever reason, his arm slot had been dropping. Here are three screenshots, from the last three seasons. It’s readily evident that Wood has dropped his angle.

There’s not all that much difference between 2013 and 2014, but pay close attention to 2014 vs. 2015. The mound and the plate are in about the same place, so you can look at the reference points. In the 2014 picture, the ball is coming out level with the line marking the back of the batter’s box. In the 2015 picture, the ball is coming out level with the line marking the front of the batter’s box. In 2014, the ball is coming out well above Wood’s head. In 2015, it’s almost even with it. Wood didn’t quite become a side-armer, but he became more of a side-armer, and his stuff flattened out, and he was less able to work righties inside.

I’ll pull from Brooks Baseball. Relative to 2014, last year Wood’s average fastball to righties was two inches more outside. His average changeup was four inches more outside. His average breaking ball was six inches more outside. Wood became one of those pitchers who tried to live down and away against opposite-handed bats, and while that’s clearly a popular approach for a reason, Wood wasn’t able to do what he’d previously done. At his best, he’d worked more in, but he either didn’t have the command, or he didn’t have the confidence.

Now we’ll see where Wood has gotten back to. To this point it’s almost all still talk, but this is clearly something he’s worked on, and it’s not like he’s a pitcher who was trying to find a reliable changeup for the first time in his life. Wood was just trying to get his mechanics back to where they were, after they mysteriously slipped. It’s promising — and it’s promising that he himself set out to do this — and given what Wood was once, he could be in line for a major bounceback. The Dodgers wouldn’t mind the stability.

There’s one more thing, that might have to do with the mechanics. Something has happened with Wood’s breaking ball. In the following table, you’re going to see how his breaking ball has compared to his fastball, in terms of speed, horizontal movement, and vertical movement. The fastball and the changeup have remained more or less in lockstep, but the breaking ball has changed.

Alex Wood, Breaking Ball vs. Fastball
Year Speed Gap H-Mov Gap V-Mov Gap
2013 12.7 13.2 14.0
2014 10.7 12.3 11.7
2015 8.8 11.8 7.2
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

Over three years, the speed difference between the two pitches has dropped from 13 to nine miles per hour. There’s been a small reduction in the difference in horizontal movement, but when you look at vertical movement, the change is pronounced — where once there was a difference of 14 inches, last year it was about half that. Last year, Wood’s curveball behaved a lot more like a slider, perhaps because a proper curveball can be more difficult to throw from a lower slot. It will be interesting to see if Wood’s curve goes back to what it was in 2014 or even 2013, because that was a pitch he was able to use inside against right-handed hitters. It was an important pitch for him, and last year it was strange.

There’s plenty to look for, here, as spring training gets going and the season approaches. Wood has made some mechanical adjustments he intends to carry into competitive games. When he’s going well, he’s a legitimate No. 2 starter, which is something the Dodgers presently lack. So while I don’t want to just declare that Wood is fixed after having read a few articles, I like the potential significance of this. And though people love to point out how Wood’s velocity has dropped from when he was a rookie, he was pretty damn good in 2014 when his fastball was around 89 – 90. That’s about where he was pitching a year ago before hurting his foot, so Wood shouldn’t need to get back everything he’s lost. He’s proven he can be good with reduced velocity. Now he just needs to prove he can throw like himself.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

Wow, that reduction in vertical movement is pretty extreme. In 2013, it dropped about 6 inches on average. At 79 mph, that’s a decent drop for a curve. In 2015, it as barely 1 inch of drop. That’s basically just a slider, and at 80 mph, that’s a pretty mediocre slider. A pitch with 1 inch of drop thrown at 87 mph is pretty good, but that isn’t going to happen, so Wood needs to get his old movement back.