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Understanding Alex Wood’s Renaissance

Nick Pollack's Going Deep article pledge #8 featuring Alex Wood.

Editor’s Note: With MLB owners forcing us to miss games in 2022, I have pledged to write a Going Deep article every day until the lockout is lifted. Please consider supporting Pitcher List with a PL+ subscription to help us survive through these difficult months.

Today the PL+ crowd elected to turn my attention to Alex Wood after he posted an alluring 3.83 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 26% strikeout rate in San Francisco across 26 starts last season.

I’m going to be straight with y’all – there isn’t a whole lot to say about Wood. He re-signed with the Giants and will once again be in a great situation, while he increased his fastball velocity (will it stick?) and served a deadly slider. There’s obviously more to it than that, but don’t anticipate the 1,500 words from yesterday’s Manoah piece.

With that out of the way, I think it’s important to look at Wood’s past as some think his 2022 is a reflection of his All-Star season with the Dodgers.

 

What Made 2017 So Successful?

 

Wood shocked us in 2017 with the Dodgers as he carried a 2.72 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 24.6% strikeout rate across 152.1 frames. Here’s a GIF showing exactly how he got it done:

Wood was tossing 92 mph heaters for the first time in his career and was able to spot filthy changeups under them constantly, helping him induce just a .173 BAA on his slow ball. It led to a ridiculous 16.1 pVAL, while his breaker was a certified money pitch that season, boasting a 43% O-Swing, 48% Zone rate, and 19% SwStr rate. Things were wonderful.

Wood wasn’t able to hold onto these skills, sadly. His fastball velocity fell across the next four seasons to roughly 90 mph, while he was never able to reach the same heights with his changeup. The breaker was able to keep Wood in the majors, but it was far from a stellar offering. It wasn’t pretty, until 2021 when he signed with the Giants.

 

Alex Is Different Now

 

Wood has adapted in a few ways. I love using stat tables and I hope you do because you’re getting one now. Let me show you his new three-pitch approach and how they perform:

Alex Wood’s 2021 Repertoire

Your first takeaway is likely the 91.8 mph heater, which is identical to the velocity from 2017. That velocity is so important, in fact, that during Wood’s worst stretch of the season where he allowed 15 ER in three games, those first two outings came with his two lowest fastball velocities of the year. Hard to believe that’s just a coincidence.

That sinker also boasted a 36% CSW rooted in an elite 27% called strike rate as it pounded the zone nearly 60% of the time…and oddly enough induced under 40% grounders. A major shock when you recall Wood’s 53% groundball rate. You can thank the slider and changeup for that.

And what a segue into those secondaries. Wood’s breaker was straight filth last year, holding a near 22% SwStr rate and earning strikes close to 70% of the time. Batters couldn’t touch it and Wood had no fear tossing it in any count. It was wonderful and looked pretty, too:

Look at that location. Pristine. Wood exceptionally commanded the pitch down and away from left-handers and kept the same location, sneaking under the bats inside to right-handers. It’s what all filthy sliders should do.

Sadly, the changeup isn’t what it used to be. There were stretches in 2021 that reflected its former self, but ultimately, the pitch was a detriment and found itself dropping in usage as the season progressed:

This chart is a little deceptive in that October drop (just one game!), but July and September say significant hesitation to feature the pitch. It’s still there and can be helpful, but we may see Wood turn into a two-pitch pitcher constantly in 2022. Let’s hope the fastball and slider have plateaued and not peaked.

 

It’s Not Just His Pitch Mix

 

And through the beauty of these livestreams on Twitch, viewer yellowpoles saw the above 2017 GIF and felt like his release point was a touch higher in 2017 from what he remembered. Lo and behold:

Well hot dang, look at that! Wood has lowered his release point nearly a full foot since 2017 and it may have helped propel his fastball and slider to its new heights. As for the changeup, one thought is it could have affected how the slowball moves, forcing Wood to get a new feel for the pitch. Having a lower release point for a changeup isn’t necessarily bad – in many cases, it actually helps (look at Aaron Nola and Luis Castillo’s release points!) – but it does require a shift in release mentality from being more over the top (how are you pronating off the ball now? Is that comfortable?).

I’d imagine Wood will keep this release point in 2022 and it could be another point for Wood to keep the same ability in the upcoming season.

 

That One Thing We Shouldn’t Forget

 

It would be negligent to write about Alex Wood and ignore his lack of volume across his career. Since his 189.2 inning season in 2015, Wood has failed to eclipse 155 frames, tossing just 138.2 last year as he began the year on the IL with a back injury and later missed time due to COVID. The latter is far from a knock on Wood’s durability, though it’s hard to anticipate Wood going wire-to-wire given constant trips to the IL across his career.

 

Conclusion

 

It was wonderful to see Wood reinvent himself in the 2021 season. I didn’t mention how pitching in San Francisco aided Wood as I went over the benefits of being a Giants pitcher in the Alex Cobb piece (Brandon Crawford turns hits into outs and the Giant Brick WallTM in right prevents longballs – read it here), but that’s sure to help once again in the upcoming season.

At the end of the day, the question is if Wood will be able to maintain his fastball velocity and replicate his slider’s success for another season while dodging the Injured List as best as he can. The bad news here is the only direction he can go is down at this point as any hopes for a changeup resurgence are questionable.

Wood is a new man. Here’s to hoping he can retain his sub 4.00 ERA and 25% strikeout for another season on the back of newfound velocity and a brilliant breaking ball.

 

Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)

Nick Pollack

Founder of Pitcher List. Creator of CSW, The List, and SP Roundup. Worked with MSG, FanGraphs, CBS Sports, and Washington Post. Former college pitcher, travel coach, pitching coach, and Brandeis alum. Wants every pitcher to be dope.

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