Dodgers starter Alex Wood was 15th in strikeout rate last year among starters. This year, he’s all the way down to 67th. That’s a difference of more than two strikeouts per nine innings, and the second-biggest drop among qualified starters. His velocity isn’t down much, he’s throwing the same pitches, and they seem like they look the same. So what happened to Alex Wood’s strikeouts?
Turns out, a combination of mechanics and approach has robbed him of some effectiveness. In each case, though, there’s hope. The pitcher admitted that he’s thinking about both, and had answers for the way forward, at least.
One thing you might notice about Wood’s statistical line is that he’s increased his ground-ball rate, from 45.9% to 47.5%. That’s not a huge jump, but it does point to something that has been an issue for Wood: where he’s throwing the ball in the zone.
In mid-June this year, Wood was throwing his sinker a full four inches lower in the zone, on average, than he was the year before. Since batters swing more at pitches up in the zone, there are more swing and misses higher in the zone, and more ground balls at the bottom.
Wood traded strikeouts for grounders, and the trade wasn’t fair. He paid too many strikeouts for a marginal increase in ground-ball rate. But for Wood, he just thinks that was a blip in execution. “I don’t think I’ve executed, command-wise, and that’s the biggest key,” the pitcher told me before a game against the Athletics. And maybe he’s corrected that blip — his average vertical location for the sinker is back to where it was late last year over the last two months.
There’s also hope that his new catcher in Los Angeles might be able to turn some of those low balls into strikes. Yasmani Grandal is the third-best framer in baseball by StatCorner’s catcher report. And his affect on Wood was immediate and measurable. The pitcher was appreciative: “The receiving is great, as is the preparation.”
|Team||Pitch||In Zone, Taken for Balls||Outside Zone, taken for Strikes|
To Wood, more important than any change in his approach was a change in approach by the batters. “When guys get a good scouting report on you they try to swing early,” Wood said, and that leads to more contact on the sinker instead of swings and misses on the secondary stuff.
Batters are swinging 10% more often this year in zero-strike and zero- or one-ball counts against Wood, so it looks like the numbers agree with his assessment. The lefty agreed that the only way forward is to cat-and-mouse right back at them, and throw some changeups and curves for strikes early in the count. So it’s probably of no surprise that his fastball usage on the first pitch is down 10% this year.
Of course, most of those fastballs have been replaced by curves. And the curve? That’s another story.
To say that all of Wood’s pitches are generally the same is to ignore one little asterisk: the breaking ball is a little different this year. He’s lost a full three inches of drop on his curve, actually.
For Wood, it’s execution again. “Depends on how it comes out of my hand,” he said. “Sometimes it’ll be more side to side and sometimes it’ll be more top-to-bottom.”
There are worrisome signs in his mechanics. For those that find his entire set of mechanics worrisome, a note — “nobody has ever tried to change me,” Wood said of his funky delivery, “it’s the way I’ve always thrown.” He said that it’s “all about consistency, it’s not about how you get there, it’s just about getting there.”
But that doesn’t mean that his funk isn’t a little funkier this season. Wood’s vertical release point has dropped almost six inches over the course of his career.
The pitcher has noticed, but thinks any mention of the release point change is overblown. “It might be a touch lower, but it’s pretty close,” he thought. And release point is not strongly correlated to curveball drop, so across baseball, it’s certainly possible to get drop on the curve from a lower arm slot.
Instead, Wood thinks about making sure his delivery is aimed in the right direction. “I have to remember to stay down the hill and towards the plate and avoid getting rotational,” he said. “Sometimes when I throw the breaker I get a little too side-to-side.”
This sort of thing is “harder to tweak” in the middle of season, since you’re always throwing competitively and there’s no ‘practice’ like there is in Spring Training. But Wood has found a way to help, he thinks.
“I went back to the first base side of the rubber, and my breaking ball is better from that side,” Wood said. Something about how he releases the curve from that side of the rubber is important. “It sounds like a small adjustment, but it’s a huge one really,” he emphasized. “Mechanically, those six inches play a significant role in how your pitches come out of your hand.”
In Wood’s game against Oakland that series, his curve showed more average drop than it had in any game since June first. He’s also used the curve more since he arrived in Los Angeles. That breaker is still not quite back to where it was last year, but that’s progress.
And really, that’s the best he can do in season. Tweak the approach by throwing more junk early in the count, throw the sinker a little bit higher to coax more swings, and move on the rubber in order to improve the breaking ball. Though his strikeout rate hasn’t improved yet in Los Angeles, his swinging strike rate is up nearly 50%.
Maybe soon we’ll get back the vintage Alex Wood. The one that can “throw everything exactly where you want it and everything’s nasty” as the pitcher put it. That pitcher is still in there.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.