Welcome Back Again, Alex Wood

14 months ago, Jeff wrote a post titled “Welcome Back, Alex Wood“. In the piece, Jeff noted that Wood’s arm slot had been dropping each year, corresponding with decreases in effectiveness since he debuted with the Braves and established himself as one of the game’s best young starters. But during Spring Training of 2016, Wood got his arm slot back up to where it was earlier in his career, and his velocity also was higher than it had been in 2015, when the Braves decided he was about to break down and traded him for Hector Olivera.

With better velocity and a return to his previous release point, Jeff suggested that the Dodgers might get the good version of Alex Wood again, and to some extent, that turned out to be right. His strikeout rate jumped from 17% to 26% while also posting the highest GB% (53%) of his career, so while his 3.73 ERA wasn’t amazing, his FIP and xFIP were both back to his Atlanta levels. But Wood also battled elbow problems that put him on the shelf at the end of May, and when he returned at the end of the year, the team used him as a low-leverage reliever. He showed flashes of promise in his 10 early-season starts, but 2016 wasn’t exactly the hoped-for justification of why the team targeted Wood at the 2015 trade deadline when better pitchers — specifically Cole Hamels — were available.

2017 looked like more it might continue that trend, as Hyun-Jin Ryu‘s return to health pushed Wood back to the bullpen to start the year. And even when he was pressed into starting duty a week into the season due to Rich Hill’s blister problem, the results weren’t that encouraging, as he walked five of the 19 batters he faced and couldn’t make it out of the fourth inning. But despite the wildness, there as one big reason for optimism that came out of that start; Wood showed that his spring training velocity bump wasn’t just preparation for a relief role, but that his fastball might really be back to 2013 levels.

While he sat 94-95 in relief in his first appearance of the year, that could have easily been written off as a normal velo bump that starters get when they move to relief work. But when pressed into a starting role, he still managed to sit 93-94, which is what Wood was throwing back when he was a dominating rookie in Atlanta. The command wasn’t there, but stuff wise, this was as good as Wood had looked in years. And after Hill and Ryu’s DL stints gave Wood the chance to rejoin the rotation for more than just a spot start, Wood has finally looked like the guy the Dodgers hoped they were trading for.

Since April 21st, Wood has made four starts, throwing 20 2/3 innings in the process. And while he hasn’t been asked to pitch deep into those games, he’s dominated opposing hitters over that span.

Alex Wood, Since April 21st
5% 36% 64% 0.327 61% 3.48 1.31 1.48

Wood has struck out 30 of the 84 batters since rejoining the rotation, including 11 strikeouts in his start against Pittsburgh last night. He’s walked just one batter in each of those four starts (one of them intentionally), so his 30/4 K/BB ratio shows how well he’s owned the strike zone. But his dominance goes beyond even that level, as 32 of the 50 batters to put the ball in play against him during that span have hit the ball on the ground. You almost never see a pitcher combine a better than 30% strikeout rate with a 60% ground ball rate, but during these last four starts, Wood’s at a 36% strikeout rate and a 64% groundball rate.

That is Dallas Keuchel‘s groundball ways combined with Chris Sale’s control of the strike zone. Those are good things to have, and insanely good things to have simultaneously. And it’s not like the groundballs Wood is giving up have been rockets; he’s allowed just an average exit velocity of 86 mph during these last four starts, and his .216 expected wOBA based on Statcast data is actually lower than the already-absurd .233 wOBA he’s allowed during this stretch.

Of course, this is all super small sample data. We’re talking about four starts, and only 84 batters faced in those four starts. But it’s worth noting that Wood has never really had a four start stretch this good in his big league career. The closest he came was back at the end of 2014, when he ran a 34/5 K/BB ratio across 28 innings while getting grounders on 54% of his batted balls. Even in the best year of his career, when he ran a 2.78 ERA/3.25 FIP/3.19 xFIP, he didn’t quite dominate over four starts like he has since rejoining the Dodgers’ rotation.

The key for Wood this year really does seem to be the effectiveness of his fastball. For reference, here’s the amount of contact on fastballs in the strike zone against Wood, by year.

Z-Contact% on Fastball
Year Z-Contact%
2013 86%
2014 88%
2015 91%
2016 95%
2017 85%

In the first couple of years, when Wood was really good in Atlanta, his sinker not only got grounders, but it missed enough bats in the zone to help him get ahead in counts as well, and then he could get hitters to chase his curve and change-up out of the zone. Over his first four years, the pitch became more and more hittable, and Wood lost the ability to miss bats, relying on walk-avoidance and grounders to keep him afloat.

This year, though, the fastball is missing bats again, like it was earlier in his career, and that’s putting him in more advantageous counts, which leads to chases on breaking balls out of the zone. Last year, opposing batters swung at just 33% of his curveballs out of the zone, but this year, that’s up to 46%. Wood’s ability to get early strikes with his fastball has put him in a position to bury his off-speed stuff in the ground and still get hitters to chase.

And so, for the first time in a Dodger uniform, Alex Wood looks like the guy Atlanta had at the beginning of his career. He’s mixing a mid-90s fastball with a mid-80s curve and a high-80s change-up, and getting both whiffs and groundballs with all three pitches. He’s never been a guy who has pounded the strike zone, but by getting ahead in counts and getting chases out of the zone, Wood can keep his walks down and his strikeouts up. And even when he’s giving up contact, it’s been of the weak groundball variety.

For right now, the Dodgers are effectively manufacturing injuries in order to keep Wood in the rotation, pushing back a decision to ship someone else to the bullpen in order to keep Wood starting every five days. But with the way he’s throwing right now, Wood might be the team’s second or third best starter (depending on Rich Hill’s ability to stay on the mound), and it’s hard to see him getting bumped back to the bullpen again any time soon. This version of Alex Wood is a high-quality starting pitcher, and the one the Dodgers have been waiting for since they acquired him.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

You meant April 21st, not May 21st