I don’t normally like to re-visit post topics, especially within the same month, but I’m doing this for two reasons. For one, now we have some data. And for two, the Dodgers have been plagued by bad news for much of spring training, so it’s worth spreading a little optimism. Players have been slowed by injuries left and right, but Alex Wood looks like he could be poised for a major rebound season.
This is what I wrote on March 3. The talk back then was about how Wood spent the offseason trying to correct his mechanics, which started slipping from normalcy somewhere around the end of 2014. It didn’t help when Wood later hurt his foot, which caused further mechanical inconsistency as he worked through the ache, but mainly, Wood wanted to get his arm slot back to where it had been. He was never one to pitch over the top, but as his performance declined, Wood’s left arm dropped lower and lower.
About that! In early March, we had Wood’s words. Now that it’s later March, we have Wood on the mound.
As a sample, here’s Wood throwing a pitch from 2015:
This is going to be annoying, because I can’t replicate the camera angle, but look at that image closely. Look at Wood’s throwing arm. The upper arm comes out at almost a sidearm slot, and then there’s some tilt, but Wood’s still releasing the ball around the top of his head. Let’s call it lower three-quarters. Here’s Wood throwing a pitch just yesterday:
He’s letting go of the ball well above his head. Again, yes, I recognize that the angles are different, but I think this is dramatic enough to be apparent nevertheless. This is like a regular three-quarters. Alex Wood said he wanted to raise his arm slot back to where it used to be, and now we have evidence of his having done just that.
An encouraging tweet:
Alex Wood said he felt as good tonight as he has since 2014. “Dust settled” on some mechanics he addressed in winter. 2 HR little wind-aided
— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) March 29, 2016
As you know, we shouldn’t need to settle for screenshots and tweets. They’re great if they’re all we have, but Wood this spring has pitched a little bit in front of PITCHf/x cameras. So, borrowing from Brooks Baseball, here are Wood’s estimated vertical release points:
It’s almost inarguable. The only thing you could argue is that sometimes PITCHf/x has glitches, and it would be nice to have a bigger sample. But this is exactly what Wood set out to do. His release points in spring have been more or less what they were in 2013, and in early 2014. Then Wood clearly started to drop, leading all the way to last year’s slot. Relative to last year, based on this, Wood has raised his slot about six inches. That’s a big deal as release points go, and as a side effect of this, Wood’s been able to restore some vertical movement on his pitches, instead of getting more run. With the higher slot, Wood can operate in both the horizontal and the vertical planes.
There’s another thing, too. It’s not tied directly to the arm slot, but it is tied to Wood’s health, and to his streamlined delivery. Here are Wood’s average velocities. This year’s spring sample is small, absolutely. This shows Wood over 63 pitches, instead of over 103 pitches. But then, this time of year, pitchers are still building their arm strength. So just take this however you want to take it:
There are early signs of a velocity bump. Not to a new level, but to an old and familiar level. The spring fastball has had some life to it. The spring changeup has had some life to it. Wood’s breaking ball has changed over time, picking up more power and sacrificing some break, but that doesn’t seem to be an accident. The breaking ball has been a pitch in transition. The other pitches have just gotten stronger.
It’s spring, so nothing has counted. Wood will begin the season with zero innings and an ERA of -.–. But look at what we have: Wood says he feels the best he’s felt in a while, and it looks like he’s successfully adjusted his mechanics. Now his velocity is playing up some, and for however much this is worth, Wood has two walks and 13 strikeouts in 14 innings. Though he’s yielded runs, I’m less concerned about that, because Wood has never been very hittable. Not even when he was in a slump. I like to pay attention to the more direct indicators, and they’re promising, to this point. Wood in 2016 could be working with more than just deception.
Between 2013 and 2014, 196 starters threw at least 100 innings. Wood ranked 20th in ERA-, 37th in FIP-, and 38th in xFIP-. He had Johnny Cueto’s strikeouts and walks, and he averaged a hair over six innings a game. In 2014, he made 14 starts with more than 100 pitches, and he didn’t seem to have problems wearing down. When Alex Wood last felt like he liked, he was a legitimate No. 2 starter. A No. 2 with risk, absolutely, and we saw him subsequently go downhill, but it looks like he might’ve climbed back up. These are spring indicators to throw support behind.
There’ll always be skepticism, because Wood is a pitcher and pitchers break down. And there’ll always be further skepticism because of the way that Wood throws. It’s unusual, which makes it uncomfortable, and Wood did experience a bit of forearm discomfort the other week. But then, he’s come back and been symptom-free, so that seems like a blip. The next time, if there is a next time, it might not be a blip. I’d be stupid to guarantee that Alex Wood is going to preserve his health. Performance-wise, though, I like what he’s shown. The Dodgers traded for Alex Wood because they were fans of what he’d been able to do. Seems like he’ll be able to do it again.
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.