In at least one way, Travis Wood was fantastic last season. He pitched to a 3.11 ERA over 32 starts and 200 innings. However, Wood was a source of great skepticism entering the 2014 season. His .248 BABIP and mediocre 2.18 K/BB ratio signaled possible regression. Moreover, he’s a fly ball pitcher in a park that doesn’t usually favor fly ball pitchers (except in April). His HR/FB ratio was low at 6.9 percent.
So we had a lot of reason to doubt Wood entering this season. Through four starts, he’s turned the old analysis on its head. His whiff and strikeout rates have jumped to career bests – and it’s not even close. His K/BB ratio is a robust 7.00. His 2.52 ERA is supported by a 2.45 FIP and 2.79 xFIP. His BABIP is actually high at .338. We usually see this kind of performance leap with an increase in velocity, but Wood is still flipping 89 mph fastballs. What gives?
It really all comes down to repertoire. Or does it? Here is his career pitch usage.
And here are his four 2014 starts.
We’ve found something. He’s throwing more cut fastballs. Specifically, he’s throwing 15 percent more cut fastballs, mostly at the expense of four-seam fastballs. But here’s the weird part: his four-seamer is actually quite deceptive. It outperforms his cutter in batting average allowed and whiff rate. It’s barely worse in ISO allowed. Take a look at his pitch outcomes.
His whiff rate is way up on his four-seam, cutter, and slider. There’s no obvious explanation for the increase.
It’s possible he’s throwing from a different release point this season. Here is his game-by-game horizontal release point.
He might be getting a bit of extra vertical movement on his pitches as a result. None of this smells like a reason why he’s suddenly whiffing batters like a stud.
Maybe his opponents are to blame. He’s faced the Diamondbacks, Yankees, Pirates, and Phillies. The Yankees matchup was a little rough. The Pirates have a decent offense, but the Phillies and DBacks are prone to strikeouts. Perhaps his whiff rate will naturally decline as he faces better offenses.
My only other guess is he may be locating his pitches better. A low walk rate supports that hypothesis, but we’re only talking about four starts. Moreover, I can’t find any additional evidence to back up the theory. What I can find is a 59.6 percent contact rate on pitches outside of the strike zone. His career rate is 73.2 percent. His contact rate allowed within the strike zone is normal. We’ve found the difference, but is it sustainable?
Here’s a parting chart – his whiff rate by location for cutters and sliders. He uses both pitches similarly, pounding righties in and lefties away.
His performance to date has been supported by his peripherals, but peripherals can also regress. Once his whiff and strikeout rates go back to normal, he’ll be plain old Wood again. Until I can find evidence of some kind of change, I have to expect regression.
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