The All-Star Transformation of Travis Wood
He was coming off a 2011 season in which he posted a meager 4.84 ERA and got demoted to AAA for two months during the middle of the season. There were flashes throughout his rookie season in 2010 when everyone thought he was coming into his own as a starter, but not before a miserable regression kicked in and saw him settle in as a mediocre bullpen option for the Cincinnati Reds. Dusty Baker and co. decided to give up on this former second-round draft pick and ship him to Chicago in exchange for every Cub fan’s favorite (or second favorite) pitcher, Sean Marshall, who was quickly becoming the NL’s best non-closing relief pitcher. Clearly, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer saw something in this soon-to-be bust named Travis Wood, and at this point in time, their instincts have proven to be spot on.
It’s been four long years since the Cubs had a pitcher of any sort make the All-Star team, but the hard work, patience and humility of Travis Wood has finally broken that slump. Last season was certainly another rough one for Wood, but whatever ‘Secret Stuff‘ Chris Bosio chose to feed him this past spring has paid dividends out the wazoo, as the memories of Cubs fans (including myself) throwing fits of rage upon hearing the news of a Wood-for-Marshall swap are now miles and miles away. He has completely transformed himself from a replacement-level pitcher (WAR of -0.1 and 0.7 the past two seasons, respectively) to one of the most valuable pitchers in the National League through the first half of the season with a WAR of 3.0, good for ninth overall in the National League, according to Baseball Reference.
On top of that, Wood’s eighth-ranked ERA (2.69), sixth-ranked WHIP (0.98), and second-ranked H/9 (6.1) amongst NL starters have him in the mix for a healthy raise from his current $527,500 contract as he heads into the 2014 offseason eligible for arbitration. Wood also leads all of Major League Baseball with 16 quality starts (6+ innings, 3 ER or less) – yes, more than Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Matt Harvey, etc. – and has only had one non-quality start the entire season (94% quality start percentage), which came against Cincinnati, coincidentally, on May 25th. Words can’t do Wood’s first-half performance justice; he has simply been sensational and one of the lone bright spots for the Cubs this season. Put him on a team that can actually score some goddamn runs (Cubs score 3.18 runs per Wood start, ranking him fifth to last in NL run support average), and that five-win total likely increases by three, four, or even five.
What, exactly, has led to this sensational transformation, you ask? The most obvious change lies in the pitches that he’s throwing. Wood is throwing slightly fewer four-seam fastballs, curveballs and change-ups while mixing in more cutters and sliders, per Fangraphs:
As you can see, the increase in sliders is dramatic. Historically, Wood has shied away from throwing his slider to right-handed hitters, whom he has struggled to pitch against over the years, and has chosen to rely heavily on his four-seamer to get ahead of batters or throw a strike when needed. This season, Wood is generating more whiffs from righties by improving his slider location (down and in, as opposed to leaving it up and over the plate like last year), likely leading to his career low home run percentage (1.9%), extra base hit percentage (5.8%), line drive percentage (20.5%) and home run to fly ball ratio (5.7%) overall. In addition to his slider success, Wood is leaving runners in scoring position stranded more often than ever (.254 RISP BAA in 2012; .203 RISP BAA in 2013) and walking the least amount of batters (7.6% BB%) of his career since his rookie season.
Outside of his pitch selection, Wood’s release point has also slightly changed, which Fangraphs pointed out in the link above, as his arm angle is a little bit closer to his body this season compared to last season. This may or may not have anything to do with Wood’s improvement, but it’s quite possible that such a mechanical adjustment was pointed out by, and worked on with, Chris Bosio throughout the offseason.
Whether Wood can keep up this kind of success remains to be seen. It’s more likely than not that his league-leading .211 batting averages on balls in play (BABIP – how many of a pitcher’s balls in play go for hits) will regress towards his career rate of .265, leading to an ordinary second half as opposed to another great half like the one we’ve witnessed thus far. Until then, however, it’s time we appreciate the impressive transformation of Travis Wood and applaud him for his All-Star performance over the past three months. The 26-year-old southpaw is finally breaking through and showcasing why he deserves to be a potential building block, albeit as a third or fourth starter, for a franchise expected to break through on its own just two years from now.