Alex Wood - Fantasy Ace or Extraordinary April?

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A long time ago (2014), in a galaxy far far away (Atlanta), then 23-year-old Alex Wood demonstrated ace upside by striking out tons of hitters, and generating ground balls at an above-average pace while being bounced back-and-forth from the rotation to the bullpen. His stats that year in his starts only (156.1 Innings): 2.59 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 39 Walks, 151 Strikeouts.

2015, however, was a far different story. Alex Wood struggled to strike out batters at a clip anywhere near 2014, posting a 6.6 K/9 compared to 8.91 K/9 the year before; he was traded to the Dodgers and it seemed as if Alex Wood went from no-name prospect to budding ace all the way to one-hit-wonder all in the course of a year and a half.

Just when all seemed lost, 2016 rolls around, and things seem to look a little different. All of a sudden, the strikeouts were back. Wood was a changed man, and he accredited his regained success to a seemingly minor mechanical change, citing his stride had been a little exaggerated and that once he was able to correct it, he could get his timing and consistency back. It has been suggested that Wood was over-correcting for a bone-bruise he suffered on the last game he pitched as a Brave, and this threw off his consistency ever more. Consistency plays an important role in any pitcher's career, and this minor change seemed to help Alex Wood drastically in his return as a strikeout pitcher. His stats in 2016 (60.1 IP): 3.73 ERA (3.18 FIP), 1.26 WHIP, 20 BBs, 66 Ks. Alex Wood only pitched 60.1 innings last year because he hurt his elbow, and underwent an arthroscopic debridement of his pitching elbow, ending his season and plummeting any sort of hope of a revival.

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Alex Wood: Has he finally emerged as an ace in Los Angeles

So here we are. It is mid-May 2017, and 26-year-old Alex Wood is all of a sudden one of the best pitchers on the planet. In his six starts, Alex Wood has a 27.0 K-BB%, which puts him at second in all of baseball, only behind Chris Sale. His 2.67 ERA in starts is backed up by a 1.53 FIP and a 1.98 xFIP. He's struck out a whopping 13.1 batters per nine innings, and his 62.8% GB% puts him third in all of baseball, alongside Kyle Freeland and Dallas Keuchel.

In fact, his ground balls have increased steadily every year since he bottomed out in 2015, particularly with his knuckle-curveball. In 2015, Alex Wood produced ground balls on 54.7% of balls in play with his curve. Last year he increased that rate to 58.3%, and in 2017, Alex has skyrocketed his ground ball rate on curves to a ridiculous 75%.

His changeup, however, might be the real story of Alex Wood's newfound success. He has ramped up the usage of his changeup, from 16.7% in 2015 up to 27.2% this year. This pitch has seen nearly a three mph velocity spike in 2017, along with his sinker, and it appears that the added velocity has done Alex Wood wonders. He has induced whiffs at 16.1% of his changeups, compared to 11.6% in 2015, and has induced grounders on 63.3% of BIPs on his change, compared to 52.3% in 2015. Furthermore, ISO against his changeup has gone from around .110 in 2015 down to around .040 this year.

With three legitimate pitches: Sinker, Knuckle-Curve, and Changeup, Alex Wood seems to have elevated his game in two of the most important dimensions for a pitcher: strikeouts and weak contact. Alex Wood's 22.1% Hard-hit% is the second lowest in the MLB, behind only Dallas Keuchel, and his 33.1% K% sits at second in baseball behind only Chris Sale. It seems that in a year plagued by injury to front-line starting pitchers, Alex Wood has evolved into some sort of mutant-hybrid with the strikeout abilities of Chris Sale and the ground-ball and weak-contact abilities of Dallas Keuchel.

So what is he doing differently?  As mentioned earlier, Alex Wood has seen nearly a three mph spike in velocity across the board since 2015. Likely a leading factor in his newfound velocity bump is his release point. Alex Wood has an incredibly funky delivery, and as a result, his release point has gone through changes year-to-year. If anyone hasn't seem him pitch, here is an example of his wacky and deceptive delivery.

There is quite obviously a lot going on in his delivery, and therefore one shouldn't be surprised to hear how much Alex Wood has tinkered with his release point. Much akin to James Paxton last year, Alex Wood has found a more natural arm slot, in this case by increasing his vertical release point substantially, resulting in a noticeable spike in velocity and effectiveness.

Not everything looks perfect for Wood, unfortunately. The Dodgers have about nine usable starting pitchers, and although they're doing a decent job of coincidentally having one of them get "injured" when he is struggling or another shows signs of health, Alex Wood's spot in the rotation is not guaranteed. At barely over 5 IP per start, Wood needs to do a better job of finishing hitters early in the count, though the Dodgers have admittedly been lifting him from games before he breaks even 90 pitches. The good news is, if Wood continues to pitch the way he has to date, the Dodgers would be stupid to take him out of the rotation, and as the season goes on, Wood will likely be handled with less care, in terms of a limited pitch count. Conclusively, Alex Wood has been one of the best starting pitchers on the planet thus far in 2017.

He's somehow still not universally owned, and if you are in one of the leagues that still has him on the waiver wire, please do not hesitate to pick him up. In a year of such horrendous pitching, a guy like Wood could be an absolute game-changer.

 

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