The Dodgers’ Game 4 Hope(s): Alex Wood and his Changeup

HOUSTON — Dodgers Game 4 starting pitcher Alex Wood was asked a day earlier during his media session if he had ever pitched in a championship environment like the World Series. Of course, finding a comparable is perhaps impossible given the stage and the stakes. From the podium before a room crowded with reporters, Wood said he had played in two state title games in his native Georgia. It was like a scene from The Natural when Robert Redford’s character, Roy Hobbs, upon his mysterious arrival in a major league clubhouse, tells New York Knights manager Pop Fisher (played by Wilford Brimley) that he used to play in high school.

Wood is a few hours away from his most important professional start. Not only are the Dodgers down two games to one in the World Series, but Dave Roberts continued to lean heavily on his bullpen Friday as Dodgers starting pitching Yu Darvish was only able to record five outs before Roberts appeared to dismiss him.

While Wood might be set for something of a tandem outing Saturday, the Dodgers need more than five outs from him.

For the Dodgers to even the series and ensure a return to Los Angeles, they need their No. 4 starter to deliver on the road against the game’s best lineup (121 wRC+ in the regular season) since the 1931 Yankees. No pressure, Alex.

But Wood does have something up his sleeve: a great changeup.

Wood’s changeup ranked sixth in the game in horizontal movement (-10.05 inches). The pitch isn’t too different from that of fellow lefty Chris Sale’s excellent changeup in terms of movement and results. Wood’s changeup yielded 30.63% whiffs per swing and 3.72 ground balls to fly balls. Sale’s changeup generated 39.53% whiffs per swing and 2.32 ground balls to fly balls.

Wood has had a changeup since he was an amateur, a second-round pick out of the University of Georgia by the Atlanta Braves. Perhaps the Braves were more willing to look beyond his unconventional, disjointed delivery due to the familiarity of the player being in their backyard.

But Wood had not employed the pitch much as a major leaguer — until this season.

Through the first four seasons of his career, he had thrown the changeup at a 30% or greater rate just twice in a start. This season he’s breached the mark six times.

As the Dodgers have seemingly done with Darvish, Justin Turner and Chris Taylor, they have extracted more value out of in-house talent. And Wood is another such example.

As Bill Plunkett reported for the Orange County Register, Wood also credited a conversion with Dodgers baseball operations president Andrew Friedman in regard to his pitch usage.

“When I really started to take off last year was after we had a conversation about pitch usage and that kind of thing,” Wood said. “I won’t go into too much detail but that along with my mechanics getting back to where they were most of my life has made everything work better.”

Wood is throwing a career-high rate of changeups (26%), up from 17.7% last season, and it has displaced his curveball as top secondary offering. According to linear weights, the pitch ranked sixth in baseball in effectiveness. And the pitch has been his top right-handed neutralizer, as is evident in this chart frorm Brooks Baseball:

The pitch has helped Wood have neutral platoon splits this year — .267 wOBA against righties and a .265 wOBA against lefties — after dealing with platoon issues for much of his career. For his career, righties have a .301 wOBA against Wood and a .274 wOBA against lefties.

Said Wood of the increased usage when I asked him Friday: “Game planning situational stuff, just pure coincidence, honestly. It’s not like we have a mindset or an idea where we’re going to throw a lot of change-ups or breaking balls or whatnot. It’s kind of just how the situation lays out and how we match up with that individual hitter.”

Wood figures to need the pitch against the Astros given the quality of their right-handed bats. In Carlos Correa (189 wRC+), George Springer (165), Jose Altuve (164) and Alex Bregman (160), the Astros have four of the 21 major-league hitters who posted a wRC+ of 160 or greater against left-handed pitching this season.

It’s a good pitch:

And Wood figures to need the pitch given the left-field dimensions at Minute Maid Park, where it feels a pitcher could lean back and rest his body against the Crawford Boxes. As I wrote last night, batting practice in Minute Maid Park, when the roof is closed, is a loud experience with batted balls clanging off the signage attached the wall in left-field that rises above the playing surface and the Crawford Boxes.

Darvish’s performance on Friday night made Minute Maid Park another loud, rock-concert-like experience with the Astros’ right-handed bats wearing out the left-field wall. The Dodgers cannot afford another performance off the mound that yields such decibel levels.

The Dodgers’ season is on the brink and it could be decided upon Wood and his changeup.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Guessing that was supposed to be Chris Taylor, not Chris Turner in the section after the changeup chart.