Alex Wood was one of the brightest spots on an Atlanta Braves club that was disappointing as a whole in 2014.
The 23-year-old lefty, who was selected in the second round of the 2012 Amateur Draft, ascended quickly to the big leagues, making his debut last May as a reliever. Wood mostly worked out of the bullpen in 2013, although he did make 11 starts. His first season in the Majors was promising, as he finished with a 3.13 ERA (2.65 FIP). A slight red flag was the disparity between his numbers as a starter and a reliever, however. Wood's ERA and FIP as a reliever (2.08/2.18) were markedly better than as a starter (3.54/3.57). This gave ammunition to those who believed that Wood was more of a two-pitch pitcher who would have a more plausible future in the Majors as a southpaw weapon out of the bullpen.
Wood flipped that logic on its head in 2014. After winning a spot in the rotation in Spring Training, Wood turned in numbers consistent with those of a bonafide front-end starter. He ended up making 24 starts on the season due to a short reprieve in May and June in which he served as a reliever, partially due to Gavin Floyd and Mike Minor's returns in early May, and partially due to a desire to limit the lefty's innings. Wood finished with all-around excellent numbers in 2014, turning in a 2.78 ERA, a 3.25 FIP, and a 3.16 SIERA in 171.1 innings of work. He was even better as a starter, compiling a minuscule 2.59 ERA. He struck out 24.5% of hitters and only walked 6.5%, good for the sixteenth-best K%-B% of all qualified Major League pitchers.
Alex was gracious enough to agree to answer some questions via email that I had for him following his strong season. So, without further, ado: Alex Wood on Alex Wood!
Ian Morris: One of the biggest concerns that many evaluators had about you as an amateur and as a prospect was your breaking ball. You've mentioned that Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters helped teach you the knuckle-curve. In 2014, you started throwing the knuckle-curve more often and more effectively than you did last year, and it became one of the most effective breaking pitches in baseball. What changes or improvements were made to this pitch?
Alex Wood: I knew in the offseason that one of the things I needed to accomplish was to have my breaking ball progress to that next level where I could consistently throw it for strikes whenever I needed to, even if I ended up having to sacrifice a little movement in the process. So, I continued to throw the knuckle-curve, just a different variation of it, that I felt comfortable with and that I thought I would be able to command.
Sure enough, in looking at the data, Wood did sacrifice some movement on his curveball in order for better control of the pitch. According to Brooks Baseball, Wood lost 1.2 inches of vertical movement off of his curveball and lost 1.44 inches of horizontal movement. Despite this lessened movement, his curveball was highly effective. Hitters managed only a 35 wRC+ against the pitch, and he threw 43.5% of curves in the zone after throwing 34.7% in the zone last season, a sign of better control. Other data, such as his improvement from a 20.4% chase percentage in 2013 to 37.6% in 2014, goes to show how Wood was able to maintain better command of the pitch, and thus, make it more effective. In fact, based on weighted pitch values, Wood's curveball was the eleventh-best among qualified starters in the league.
IM: In looking at your average fastball/sinker velocity from 2013 to 2014, it decreased from about 92.6 mph on average to about 90.8 mph on average. Obviously, you can throw harder out of the bullpen than as a starter, but do you think that the physical toll from throwing more innings contributed to this decline, or was it more a conscious decision to conserve your arm on your part (or maybe both)?
AW: Truthfully, it was a difference in mechanics, without a doubt. My direction toward the plate changed, which actually gave my sinker more movement, but with the sacrifice of a little velocity. One of my offseason goals is to kind of settle on a happier medium between the two.
Sure enough, Brooks Baseball's data backs up Alex on the fact that his sinker did sink more this season that it did in 2014, specifically, about eight-tenths of an inch more. In taking a look at some stills from Wood's delivery, courtesy of MLB.com, we can see a slight difference in his direction towards the plate. The pictures on the left are from Wood's first career start last season, and the stills on the right are from Wood's final start in 2014.
There isn't much of a difference here, although he does seem slightly more oriented towards the plate as opposed to the left-handed batter's box. The next still:
Again, same situation. His lead leg is pointed slightly further towards the right side of the plate, and he isn't quite as angled towards the first-base side.
At release, Wood's arm angle is slightly higher in 2014 than it was in 2013, and it's closer to the center of the plate than it was last year, although not dramatically so. The changes weren't drastic, but they clearly made a difference for Wood, whose fastball was the 13th-best among qualified starters. That, combined with his curveball, is a strong 1-2 pitch combination, and his changeup isn't bad itself.
IM: Speaking of injuries, you underwent Tommy John surgery as a freshman at UGA. What was this process like, and did it change anything about your delivery or the way that you pitch?
AW: I had Tommy John two months before I showed up at UGA. In terms of mechanics, the length that my arm reaches back behind my body shortened, and that was probably the biggest adjustment that was made. Everything else stayed about the same, as I had, and still have, pretty good mechanics. In terms of how it affected me with the way I pitch, it had no effect at all.
In theory, shortening the length of the reach that Wood does behind his body during his delivery would certainly serve to lessen the whip that his arm experiences. It shouldn't be surprising, though, that his mechanics are generally the same. Pitchers usually don't completely overhaul the way that they pitch after Tommy John, and Wood is no exception. He's now over five years removed from his UCL reconstruction surgery.
IM: Some people think that your delivery puts you at a greater risk for arm injury than a more conventional delivery. Are you, personally, concerned by this, or do you think you're at no greater risk than anyone else?
AW: No, I am not concerned that my mechanics are a greater risk to my health than anyone else’s. This is the way that God intended me to throw, and anyone who knows much about baseball, or pitching in general, can see that I get to about as good of a position as anyone else does. It's just that the way I get there is different than most.
Wood's deceptive delivery offers an advantage for him in that it doesn't allow batters to easily time his pitches or pick up the ball out of his hand. As I mentioned, some do believe that the unconventionality of his delivery leaves him susceptible to arm injury, and his prior Tommy John surgery only adds fire to those arguments. Wood's argument has merit, however, as he does generally end up in a normal throwing position, and doesn't have a wacky release point or arm slot. He uses his lower body well in his delivery, which lessens the stress on a pitcher's arm. All of these are good things and should at least be considered before one worries about another arm injury for Wood. Clearly, Alex himself is confident in the safety of his mechanics.
IM: Roger McDowell gets a lot of praise for his work with Atlanta's staff. How has he been valuable for you personally in your time with the Braves?
AW: Roger has been phenomenal in my time with the Braves. He took an interest in me during my very first Spring Training, and our relationship has obviously grown since I made it to the big leagues. He’s a great baseball mind and essentially anything or any idea that I come up with and run by him (which is probably a lot), he has an answer for. I have always believed that in anything you do, not just in baseball, if you do it with confidence and buy into what you are doing, you’ll have a much greater chance for success. Also, in terms of my preparation and my growth in the mental part of the game, he has been essential.
McDowell is consistently lauded as one of the best pitching coaches in baseball, and Alex's comments only strengthen this sentiment. His knowledge of the mental and physical aspects enable him to maximize his pitchers' values, and Wood's testimony is pretty darn strong.
IM: You had an excellent season in 2014, but was there anything that you were disappointed in or felt that you could have done better?
AW: There are always things that you wish you could have done better, especially in baseball. It is a game of failure, so it's hard to even try and answer that question without my head exploding. I could probably think of a millions different things I could have done better.
I don't know about this one. A million things? You had an excellent season, dude! But this is a great mindset, and something that'll surely serve Alex well going forward.
IM: What are some goals that you have or improvements that you'd like to make in the offseason and in 2015?
AW: My main goals for the offseason in terms of baseball are to clean one or two mechanical things up as well as start working on a slower curveball to complement the one that I have already.
Now, this is interesting. As was discussed earlier, Wood already has one of the best Uncle Charlies in baseball, so the idea of adding a second variety of curve into his repertoire is intriguing. He does throw a harder curveball than most starters (his average curveball velocity was 79.2 MPH, per Pitchf/X, the 20th-hardest out of 77 qualified starters who threw curveballs). So, the idea of adding another change of pace, probably with a different movement profile that I'd guess would be more vertically-oriented in order to change hitters' eye levels, is something to watch in Spring Training and as the season begins next spring.
IM: Finally, how much, if any, do you pay attention to "sabermetric" stats such as FIP (as opposed to ERA, for example) and other more "advanced" statistical analysis? Do you use any information from advanced statistics to analyze yourself or to make adjustments or improvements?
AW: To be completely honest, I don’t even know what half of the sabermetric stats mean. I honestly didn’t even know what FIP meant until I just looked it up right now. So to answer your question, no I don’t use anything from sabermetrics to analyze myself, haha.
I'm going to tell my grandchildren that I made Alex Wood google what "FIP" is.
Many thanks to Alex for answering my questions. Braves fans should look forward to Wood as he continues to develop and evolve next season. He and Julio Teherán will be the anchors of an Atlanta rotation that was effective last season and will look to build on its success going forward. It's amazing to think that Wood and Teherán will each only be 24-years-old next season, and it has to be comforting to have a nasty, young righty-lefty combination like that anchoring a rotation.
All of this isn't bad for a guy who some thought would end up as a LOOGY, huh?