Travis Wood has a 2.03 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP. He’s now thrown 53.1 innings and given up only 31 hits, striking out 36 opposing batters. Travis Wood will destroy all comers.
That’s probably what owners are telling you anyway.
You don’t have to dig too deep to notice that Wood’s FIP is 3.65 and xFIP is 4.46 (his career xFIP is 4.44). His strikeout rate and walk rates are lined up neatly with his career averages (and neither are very good), and he’s really living off that .186 BABIP and 83% strand rate. If you’re busy, there’s the end of the story, move on to another award winner by Jeff Sullivan.
But what always bugs me about just relying on the predictors and the obvious dumb luck factors is the matter of Travis Wood still accomplishing this. He didn’t just Philip Humber. He’s completely dominated over eight starts. Shouldn’t there be a bigger back story here? Turns out, well, possibly.
The most obvious change is in what pitches he’s throwing. The change isn’t dramatic, but it’s been pretty consistent across starts, so you can draw a reasonably stable conclusion that it’s intentional. On the whole, Wood is throwing fewer four seam fastballs, more cutters, and quite a bit more sliders:
Maybe, just maybe, someone took a peek at his pitch type values because his cut fastball and his slider were his two best pitches from 2012 and so far they’ve been far and away his best pitches in 2013. His velocity hasn’t changed appreciably on any of these offerings, but what seems to have changed is his philosophy against right handed batters relative to his repertoire.
First of all, Wood has always been murder on left handed batters, holding them to a .208/.286/.336 slash line with a 20% strikeout rate and 7.2% walk rate. Against righties, his career figures are .238/.309/.414 with a 17.9% K rate and 8.1% walk rate. Not terrible, but he’s also seen about 75% more right handed batters in his career, so his effectiveness against them is pretty central to his success.
In 2012, Wood hardly threw a right handed hitter a slider at all, using it about 5% of the time. He relied heavily on his four seam fastball to get ahead or when he needed a strike. This season, he’s throwing almost 50% cut fastballs when behind in the count, when he needs a strike, and he’s been much more willing to throw a slider when ahead in the count — nearing 20%. Below are the whiff, ground ball, line drive, and home run rates for his four seam, cutter, and slider from 2012 to 2013 against RHB (click to embiggen):
The takeaway here is that against righties, he’s generating more ground balls, fewer line drives and home runs on both the four seam and cut fastball. His slider, however — he’s generating almost twice the whiffs and he’s yet to give up a line drive or home run. Yeah, he’s only used the slider about 15% of the time this season, so it’s not the most robust of samples, but that he’s using it far more against righties and having success is at least notable. Of the 160 right handed batters Wood has faced, they’re hitting a collective 163/.234/.262.
A quick visual from our friends at texasleaguers.com relative to his slider location versus righties, just for good measure:
In general, his location is much more what you’d expect from a lefty slider facing a right handed batter – down and in. In 2012, he left it up and over the plate much more often.
There’s one more teensy thing that might explain some of his improved results. Whether it’s intentional or not, his release point has changed, and it has changed across all three pitches. Comparing his release point to 2012, his arm angle is just a little closer to his body in 2013.
Looking at video of Wood, he hasn’t changed his position on the rubber as far as I can tell (settle down, Beavis), but it might explain some of the subtleties in the arm slot. This release point could be something, it could be nothing, but I figure if I’m going to try and tell the tale of the new and just maybe improved Travis Wood, I ought to be thorough.
So there you have it. Wood is a slightly different pitcher in terms of repertoire and release point, but he doesn’t appear to be a patently different pitcher. Whether the tweaks will allow him to outperform his predictors on a Matt Cain kind of level, I don’t know, but I kind of doubt it. My expectation is that he’ll start to look a lot more like the old Travis Wood as the season wears on, which isn’t a bad pitcher, just not a world beater. But there are enough little changes about Wood that leave one eyebrow curiously raised as to whether he can keep up anything resembling his early success. If I’m a fantasy baseball owner, I’d probably try to sell high, but if you get stuck holding the sack, you might actually consider yourself lucky.