When Alex Wood was activated from the injured list on July 28, he was expected to take an already-excellent Reds starting rotation to the next level. One start aside, though, Wood has disappointed.

Through six starts and 29.2 innings, Wood holds a 6.07 ERA, 6.04 FIP, and 4.62 xFIP. The lefty has a lowly 17.1% strikeout rate and allowed nearly 2.5 homers per nine innings. He has hardly thrown enough innings to draw any definitive conclusions. But it was hard to see struggles of this magnitude coming. For his career, Wood owns a 3.39 ERA, 3.45 FIP, and 3.53 xFIP. He’s easily a top 30 pitcher in the game when healthy.

Clearly, Wood hasn’t shaken off the rust of such a long layoff. Where, specifically, is he struggling?

There aren’t any lingering signs of his back injury when looking at velocity. Wood isn’t a hard-thrower at all — his sinker averages 89.9 mph — but he has remained steady in this area. His fastball movement and location haven’t changed much, either, although he’s left a few hangers that have been deposited into the seats. Three of the eight homers he’s allowed have come on the sinker. But he’s actually allowing softer contact overall with the pitch than he did last season (85.2 mph vs. 87.9).

His secondary pitches set off more alarms. The changeup has been hit hard (91.4 mph average exit velocity), and the whiff rate with the pitch continues to head in the wrong direction — a trend that started last year with the Dodgers.

The pitch to focus on, though is the curveball. It’s been Wood’s bread and butter throughout his career — a go-to pitch when he needs to put a hitter away. Batters have hit .212, slugged .295, and whiffed 35.3% of the time against it in his career. When they put it into play, it’s a ground ball 57.3% of the time. The expected statistics based on exit velocity and launch angle are equally strong (Note: These numbers only date back to 2015, when Statcast launched):

  • .213 xBA
  • .299 xSLG
  • .249 xwOBA

Wood hasn’t captured the usual magic with his breaking pitch so far in 2019.

Opposing hitters are batting .323 (.287 xBA) and slugging .744 (.519 xSLG) against his curve. His whiff rate is down to 24.6%, and his ground-ball rate is down to 40.9%. Batters are chasing his curveball out of the strike zone only 31.7% of the time, versus 43.5% in 2018. Wood had allowed four home runs combined with the curveball between 2016 and 2018, a period spanning 364.1 innings. He’s allowed four this year alone in 29.2 innings. The pitch has been worse in essentially every way.

Wood can’t pin this on losing any bite on his curveball. He’s actually gained a marginal amount of movement from last year to this year, per Statcast. But he doesn’t rely on tremendous movement with his curveball anyway. It ranks well, well below average for curveballs thrown at a similar arm angle and speed, resembling a slider in movement more than a traditional 12-6 curve.

Another common problem pitchers have when struggling is with their release point. However, Wood’s appears fine, staying in a compact area — exactly what you want to see.

The simplest answer seems like the correct one in this case: Wood simply isn’t commanding the pitch well. The southpaw traditionally likes to bury the pitch low and to his glove side, primarily at the back foot of right-handed hitters. Wood isn’t burying the pitch quite enough.

Compare his 2018 heat map (left) to this year (right):

Wood is largely keeping the pitch down, which is good. But he’s making too many mistakes in the middle of the zone — note the much higher concentration of red in this area compared to last year. Additionally, the pitch isn’t finishing outside the strike zone with regularity. That goes a long way toward explaining his reduced chase rate on the curveball.

If Wood can clean this up, it’ll go a long way toward turning his season around in September as the Reds ponder whether to re-sign him for 2020 or look elsewhere.

[You can read more of Matt’s pitching analysis at Reds Content Plus.]

12 Responses

  1. DocProc

    My eyeball take on Alex Wood is simple:
    He has spent his career pitching low in the zone, and batters are now eating that up.
    The shift leaguewide has been to throw fastballs at the top of the zone. Batters who are concerned with launch angle and swinging upward have trouble catching up with high heat. But those same batters are feasting on driving low pitches.
    So Alex Wood’s basic pitch strategy–pound the lower part of the zone–is from another era. And it’s not going to serve him well in the current era.

    • James H.

      Exactly what I was thinking. Batters look like they’re playing golf, and he’s dropping pitches into their happy place.

    • SultanofSwaff

      Agreed. Thinking back to his start vs. the Cubs it was like they were looking in one zone exclusively and Wood didn’t adjust.

      • Eric

        How much of that is the call from the catcher?

        I mean…at some point, doesn’t Barnhart or Casali stroll out to the mound or walk up to Alex in the dugout and say, “When I’m calling those fastballs, you gotta get ’em up in the zone!”

        I’m not blaming the catchers; obviously, there’s something gone awry with his game, also, but it just makes me think that there ought to be some tweaking of that between starts.

  2. Pete

    Nice work as always Matt. To use terminology we are all familiar with: the eye of the hurricane looks to be far tighter this year and all of it in the strike zone. A far larger eye in 2018 and it appears at least half of it is out of the zone. Really like your use of heat maps.

    He has a month to shore this up, I believe he will. I still think Wood is a re-sign candidate for 2020, I’ll be surprised if he gets great offers in the off season. As with Jose Iglesias, the only worry is the Reds will try to outbid themselves for Jose and Alex’s services. Reds should look for deals in both cases. Free agency ain’t what it was.

    • Big Ed

      Exactly. Wood is just throwing a lot of fat pitches, and they are getting crushed. That tends to happen to fat pitches thrown by pitchers with mediocre stuff.

      • John Neiweem

        Wood essentially stole $9.6 million from the Reds this year.

      • Doug Gray

        That’s not how this works, John.

  3. jessecuster44

    Focus FA efforts elsewhere this offseason. Nothing to see here.

  4. Klugo

    No excuses, but it’s gotta be tough to walk in halfway through the season when everyone is hitting their stride. Usually it takes hitters a little time to catch up with the pitching at the start of a season. This gives the pitchers a little more leeway in getting dialed in. Not in Alex’s case.

  5. CI3J

    I still think Wood is an important piece for the Reds’ rotation going forward, the main problem is (as this article points out) his entire key to success is pinpoint accuracy, and he’s simply been missing. He’s not going to blow anyone away with his stuff, but he can trick them. In a way, he’s kind of like a left-handed version of Sonny Gray.

    I think it’s too soon to give up on Wood. Yes, the results haven’t been there, but he didn’t get his stats by pure luck over several seasons. Keep throwing him out there for this season, then let him continue rehabbing over the offseason, offer him a fair, incentive-laden contract to stay with his buddy Farmer, and let him try again during spring training next year.

    • Klugo

      That’s what Id like to see happen, also.That is unless the Reds brass is ready to break the bank for someone else.