Close observers of baseball weren't exactly fooled by Travis Wood last season. Most of us were convinced he was good, but not that good. He certainly was at least a number 3 starter in a good rotation, but not the ace his numbers suggested.
In 2013, Wood broke out in a big way. He posted a 3.11 ERA (despite a 3.89 FIP) with 2.97 BB/9 and 6.48 K/9. Good numbers. He was the ace of the staff last year. But this year has been a different story, or so it seems.
So far in 2014, Wood has posted a 4.96 ERA (despite a 4.29 FIP) with 3.90 BB/9 and 7.24 K/9 though 19 starts. Not so good numbers. We can see one problem immediately: his walks have jumped up. Then again, so have his K's. So what's the deal?
The FIP number alludes to part of it. FIP (or Fielding Independent Pitching) measures only factors that pitchers can control (HR, BB, K, HBP). If you'd like a better explanation of why stat-heads use FIP, watch this short video:
Done? Good. Wood's FIP in his Major League career is 4.27 (pretty close to his 4.29 this year). His career ERA is 3.94. It would be fair to say that his ERA, while high this year and low last year, has balanced close to his FIP.
Another good stat we can use is xFIP, which is simply FIP with HR set to 10.5% of flyballs hit. If we made a line graph of Wood's ERA with the Cubs (4.27, 3.11, and 4.94) we'd have marks all over the place. If we entered a line for his xFIP (4.62, 4.50, and 4.60) we'd have a line almost straight across.
So now we at least know that, realistically, he's not as good as last year and not as bad as this year. So what gives? Why has he sucked? Remember that FIP and xFIP measure those pitcher/batter specific stats but not a big one: hits.
FIP leaves hits out because they involve fielders, which are different on each team and not an accurate way to measure a pitcher. However, bad pitchers give up more hits and good pitchers give up fewer. So let's try to break down Wood a little more.
Teams with poor defense tend to allow higher BABIP's against, but batters hit only .218 with a .248 BABIP against Travis last year. This year, it's jumped to .265 with a .311 BABIP. Considering the Cubs have generally fielded a good defensive lineup, this is somewhat odd.
Looking over his batted-ball stats, he's actually getting more ground balls and fewer fly balls and line drives. Generally, pitchers getting more ground balls in an infield with several good-to-Gold-Glove fielders would be doing fine. So this is also odd. Could his drop simply be due to poor luck?
That's likely part of it, and it usually is when a pitcher has an ERA much higher than his FIP. But another factor is contact rates. Compared to 2013, batters are swinging less at pitches outside the zone (down from 31% to 27%) and making more contact than before (up about 1%). Wood's percentage of pitches in the zone has dropped 2% as well.
Some have mentioned that his velocity has been down, and that may be specifically true as of late in his poor starts. However, on the season it's marginal at most. Here are the velocity changes in his most commonly used pitches, from 2013 to 2014.
FASTBALL: -0.4 mph
CUTTER: -1.0 mph
SLIDER: +0.9 mph
CURVEBALL: -0.8 mph
His fastball is the pitch he throws most often, and the change in velocity is slight. He did lose 1 MPH on his cutter, which is his secondary pitch. I think we can say “maybe” on velocity change as why he's struggled, but it's certainly not clear cut.
There may be one pitch-related issue at play, however. There has been a correlation with the addition of the cutter to Jake Arrieta's pitch selection and his arrival as an ace. He wasn't taught to throw it in the Orioles farm system because they believe it can be detrimental to a pitcher long-term. Here is a quote from Rick Peterson, the Orioles director of pitching development.
"I’m not saying the cutter is not a good pitch, don’t misunderstand me. A cutter used effectively is a nice addition to your arsenal. But a cutter thrown 40 percent of the time for a young power pitcher can become a crutch, then your velocity drops and you fail to develop your changeup and a breaking ball that has depth to it. The cutter overused is normally not displacing changeups and curveballs, it’s displacing fastballs."
The description he makes certainly fits Travis Wood. Wood doesn't throw a true changeup. He throws his cutter and fastball a combined 80% of the time, both usually clocking in around 86-90 mph. If Peterson's theory is true, this could be the problem with Wood.
But his fastball isn't down much, and the other points about the higher BABIP, his FIP/xFIP versus ERA, and higher walk rate lend to the idea that there are bigger factors. In the end, the FIP is consistent with his career numbers. He truly hasn't been much worse than usual.
Travis Wood has walked more hitters and there may be more sneaky groundballs and little flares dropping in for hits than before. There may not be a measurable answer to "What is wrong with Travis Wood?" Sometimes it's just "baseball is gonna baseball."
Guys have good years, guys have bad years. The important thing is that we know how good he can be. If this is as bad as it gets, I think Wood is a keeper. Just not a top-of-the-rotation talent.
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