Even in his rotation days, Travis Wood was always harder on lefties. He held them to a .192/.258/.356 slash in 26 starts in the 2012 season after coming over from Cincinnati the previous December. Righties were 40-70 points better, but their totals weren’t outstanding.
The 2013 season was a real breakout, as Wood threw 200 innings and went 9-12 with a 3.11 ERA for a terrible team. There was virtually no difference in his stats versus righties and lefties, other than a slugging percentage that was 60 points higher for the former group. 2014 saw a regression to the norm in terms of both ERA (5.03) and his slash splits, which were at least 80 points worse when facing righties.
Against the wishes of armchair GM’s everywhere, Wood remained a starter when the 2015 season bowed, though he lasted only 7 starts with a 5.59 ERA. His fastball velocity was up, though, and the hope was that a move to the bullpen would increase his efficacy. Wood’s ERA the rest of the season was 2.83 (2.43 FIP) and his K/9 shot up to 11.17 in nearly 64 innings pitched (including two spot starts).
Much of his value as a reliever came from his ability handle hitters on either side of the plate, evidenced by identical .227 batting averages for both righties and lefties. OBP was nearly the same for both, though righties slugged .394 against only .300 for lefties. Still, it’s nice to have a guy who can come into a game and provide more than one inning of relief without having to be pulled when a pinch-hitter comes up to provide a situational advantage.
And that seemed like a pretty cool idea heading into 2016, too. Wood’s heroics early in the season bore that out, as he got out of a bases-loaded jam in Milwaukee and took part in a Waxahachie Swap in which he made a play up against the vines in left and then performed a little more wizardry on the mound. He was scraping through by the skin of his teeth, but at least he was scraping through.
And then he began biting his lip.
After giving up as many as two hits only twice in his first 40 appearances (including 24 with no hits), Wood allowed two or more knocks nine of his next 26 times out. In case you’re wondering, that’s going from a .155 batting average to .298. Not good. Thing is, all the damage was coming from righties.
While he’d never been a shut-down split guy, Wood had at least fared pretty well in the past. This season, however, he has been getting lit up to the tune of .287/.367/.570 with a .390 wOBA. Despite his many acceptable loyalties and eccentricities, it became increasingly worrisome when Joe Maddon would keep throwing Wood out there like a lamb to the slaughter when the results seemed so obviously bad.
In six appearances prior to the series with the Giants, Wood had seen 14 right-handed hitters and had allowed five hits (.385) and a walk. Four of those hits were doubles, with three coming in consecutive at-bats across two games (with a walk separating the first and second). I had been a staunch defender of the southpaw’s usage early on, but that support waned as August wore on and the scales swung further out of balance.
While Maddon would generally use Wood when the opponent was leading off with a lefty or would have two of them coming to the plate in the inning, the outing that capped the six-game stretch above saw him face four consecutive Pirate righties with disastrous results.
Wood’s two appearances since, however, have seen him oppose strictly lefties. That’s a welcome sight for those who’ve been calling for him to be deployed in exactly that manner for quite some time now. Giants lefties were 0-for-5 against Wood, who has allowed only one hit and one walk to the last 15 like-handed batters he’s faced. Both blemishes actually came in the same game, when Daniel Descalso doubled and David Dahl walked for the Rockies on August 18.
Maybe Wood’s just got a weakness for guys with double-D’s. Wait, that didn’t come out right. Maybe Wood’s just got a weakness for guys whose initials start with D. Yeah, that’s better.
It’s an interesting concept, but one that’s probably not going to hold up under scrutiny. In fact, even the most novice observer can see immediately from the heat maps below what’s causing the differences in Wood’s splits.
Wow, yeah, it doesn’t take a genius to know that you’re going to get hit a little more frequently if you leave the ball over the plate instead of pounding that low, outside corner. It’s not just location, though. Wood’s pitch mix is actually different when facing righties. He favors the four-seamer just a bit more and his slider usage is less than half what it is against lefties, a deficit he makes up for with a changeup.
Thing is, the change is Wood’s worst offering according to weighted value, costing the Cubs just over 2.5 runs per 100 pitches. At -2.12, the slider isn’t much better. The fastball and curve are pretty meh, nothing to really worry about one way or the other. The cutter, on the other hand, that’s kind of interesting. A couple years back, I had looked at Wood’s use of that pitch and how gaining and subsequently losing the feel for it caused his resurgence and regression.[beautifulquote align=”right”]Here in 2016, Wood is back to throwing a more traditional cutter.[/beautifulquote]
At the risk of getting off track, I’d like to chase this rabbit trail for just a bit before moving on. A normal cutter should have a little bit of glove-side run, which for Wood means the ball would cut away from lefties and in on righties. That’s exactly what it did for him in that breakout 2013 season, but the two subsequent campaigns saw it move more like a two-seamer. Here in 2016, Wood is back to throwing a more traditional cutter.
That should be good, right?
You’d think so, and it’s true to an extent, just that there seems to be a difference in the way he’s throwing the cutter to right-handed hitters. Take a look at the chart below and you’ll see that there’s a higher release velocity when Wood is throwing to righties. Could that explain some of the location issues?
I’ll spare you more charts, which will show you essentially the same thing when you aggregate his pitches. Release points are nearly identical regardless of who Wood is facing, so it’s not as though there’s some huge mechanical discrepancy that jumps out. It just appears as though he’s overthrowing to righties, something he’s done nearly his whole career.
Wanna guess in which season his release velos were in lockstep to hitters on both sides of the plate? Yep, 2013.
I don’t know whether Wood feels he’s got to reach back for a little something extra against righties or what, but the results are indicating that it’s not a great idea for him to do so. Then again, with the exception of that one season, I’m not sure he’s capable of breaking the habit. It’d be one thing if we were looking at a recent development, but this is a career-long trend. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.[beautifulquote align=”right”]Wood has held lefties to a .137/.221/.255 slash this season.[/beautifulquote]
Remember that recent streak of success I pointed to earlier? Wood has held lefties to a .204/.278/.319 slash over parts of seven seasons and he’s absolutely owning them this season. If, that is, .137/.221/.255 (that’s a .476 OPS) constitutes at least proxy ownership. We could just say that’s due to Wood’s stuff playing better against those hitters, though I think that’s the case because he’s simply more comfortable against them. You might think that’s an odd thing to say about a guy who’s been around since 2010, but I see nothing in the empirical evidence to suggest otherwise.
Wood’s last two appearances would seem to indicate that Maddon is indeed putting him in situations that are more conducive to his success, but you can’t really make grand conclusions from less than two innings of work. Maybe he won’t be a LOOGY, so to speak, as he’s okay when he’ll face only one righty between lefties. Although…yeah, maybe let’s not push it. Hector Rondon is back and even with Pedro Strop out for now, the Cubs have got plenty of right-handed arms in the pen.
A guy who can come in and handcuff lefty hitters in big games can be really valuable. A guy who’s left in to get rocked by righties, not so much. Travis Wood can still be that first guy, now it’s up to Joe Maddon to make sure he’s not also the second.
With the score tied a one run apiece and Brewers on first and second with two outs in the 7th, Maddon brought Wood in to face the left-handed Scooter Gennett. The move worked, as Gennett popped out to short to end the inning. Wood did not stay in to pitch the 8th since the switch-hitting Jonathan Villar was leading off, followed by righties Keon Broxton and Ryan Braun. Villar promptly deposited the first pitch he saw from Joe Smith over the wall in center to provide the difference in the game.
It was just one outing, but this makes three straight appearances for Wood against only lefties. Wednesday’s brief outing marked only the fourth time in Wood’s last 36 appearances that he has faced only one batter. Interestingly enough, he’d had 11 such outings in his 33 prior appearances. The early returns were good, so Maddon pressed his lefty into more and longer outings. I believe we’ll see the pendulum swing back toward shorter, more situational outings in order to better leverage Wood’s ability.
When you think about it, he may actually have more value to this team as a shut-down LOOGY than anything else. It’s one thing to carry a couple of long relievers in the regular season, but when you’re talking about the playoffs, having to lean on a guy like that means bad things have already happened. The Cubs don’t need a guy to come in for four or five outs, they need one who can sit that tough lefty down in the 7th or 8th inning of a close game.
Can that be Travis Wood? I think so.