Let me start off by saying it's May 14th and there is a lot of baseball left to be played -- but even still there is no question to me that LHP Travis Wood has taken a step forward in his development.
With that caveat out of the way, the question needs to be asked: Is Travis Wood the kind of guy you want for the long term?
I've made it no secret that I'm a big fan of Travis Wood. He is the kind of pitcher I like in that he has solid stuff across the board and he is athletic -- and in Wood's case, his athleticism for a pitcher is well above average, rivaling that of fellow Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija. You'll probably note that I relentlessly talk about that as a trait I like in pitchers because athletic players tend to be able to repeat their actions better. In the case of Wood, we're talking about his delivery, and when a pitcher can repeat his delivery, we should start to see consistent plus command over time.
Wood's walk rate of 2.87 per 9 innings is about what it always has been. The difference has been in the quality of strikes he has thrown this year. Last year, especially early in the season, Wood would locate some of those strikes too high in the zone. And while his stuff is solid, there is no way he can get away with that consistently -- and the results reflected that. Wood was prone to the long ball last year. This year he has learned to consistently locate the ball lower in the strike zone. He has cut his HR rate down from 1.44 HRs per 9 IP to 0.68/9 IP. The improvement is also noted in his increased GB rate, from 34% last year to 40% so far this season.
There are some numbers which indicate that Wood cannot sustain this level of performance in the long term. He has a strand rate of 83%, which is higher than his normal standard of about 72%. His strikeout rate is also down from 6.84 last season to about 6.08/9 IP this the season. The two numbers are also reflected in his FIP of 3.65, which is significantly higher than his 2.03 ERA. His xFIP, which normalizes for HR rate, is even higher at 4.14%.
So should we expect regression? Of course. However, I don't think the regression will be as steep as those numbers indicate and here's why...
While many of us focus on results, the front office has steadfastly emphasized process. They had an idea of how they were going to construct this team to succeed in the long run and some of it is exemplified in the Travis Wood case.
The thinking behind the Wood acquisition, other than obvious factors like age and cost control, is that athleticism and potential for plus command. The approach for Wood was then to attack the lower part of the zone with consistency, which results in more contact -- but it's more groundball contact. Wood keeps the ball in the park and in the infield. But that's only the first part of the equation. To back up that kind of approach, the Cubs have provided their pitchers with one of the best defensive infields in baseball. You won't find many teams with the kind of range and consistency as you will with the quartet of Luis Valbuena (or Cody Ransom), Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, and Anthony Rizzo.
This is why I'm not worried about significant regression. The Cubs have designed the team so that it's pitcher can consistently outperform their FIPs. Remember that FIP measures how your pitcher would perform with an average defense. If you provide that pitcher with an above average defense -- particular in his areas of strength --and he is able to take advantage of it with his pitch location, then we should absolutely expect him to outpitch those FIP numbers.
That's the whole idea.
So, to me, Wood is a core player because, not only is he just entering his peak performance seasons, but he fits perfectly into that particular part of the Cubs construction plans -- that is, keep the ball in the park and keep the ball on the ground. It's a plan, which not so coincidentally, should play pretty well in Wrigley Field in time and is already starting to bear fruit with Wood this season.
Of course, when you're talking core player, you're talking about locking up players long term and I think that's what the Cubs should do with Wood. I believe he'll be an integral part of the rotation for years to come. I don't know at this point if the Cubs agree, but I suspect that even if they do, they will likely wait until he regresses a little before they talk extension, which is just smart business.
It's also smart business to pay now for projected future performance and keep the players who fit your long term plans for the team.
What do you think?