Braves’ Wood looking for defined role this season
Like any young pitcher, Alex Wood is seeking consistency, although this has nothing to do with mechanics, control or velocity — it’s more about his role.
Called up in May to join a Braves’ bullpen aching for another left-hander, Wood was thrust into a spot start 20 days later, then right back to the ‘pen. In July, he was back in the minors to get stretched out, returned to Atlanta and joined the rotation. But after 20 starts he was a reliever again.
"It’s hard enough to pitch up there, let alone bouncing back and forth from starting and relieving," Wood said.
The 23-year-old with a funky delivery heads to spring training with the intent to simplify things and earn a starting spot, where he was 3-2 last season in 11 games with a 3.54 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and 77 strikeouts to 27 walks in 56 innings.
"It’s definitely nice to at least start the year with a chance to win a spot in the rotation," he said. "I’m excited for the opportunity and I’m ready to get going."
The top of the Braves’ staff is rock solid with Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran in place, but it’s that back end where Wood could prove to be the most pivotal of arms.
Likely No. 4 Brandon Beachy is coming off elbow issues post-Tommy John surgery and veteran offseason signing Gavin Floyd underwent the elbow reconstruction procedure and is not expected to be ready until May at the earliest. A Wood who is closer to the one that had a 0.90 ERA in five August starts will be tough to remove from the rotation in the fifth spot — or fourth if Beachy has further problems — should he manager to beat out David Hale (1-0, 0.82 ERA and 14 K’s in 11 innings), 37-year-old Freddy Garcia (1-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 27 1/3 innings), who agreed to a minor-league deal Friday and stave off Floyd when he returns.
Wood may be the favorite heading to Florida to claim that No. 5 spot, but he is not without his own concerns after running into troubles last year, especially as a starter. He followed that torrid August with a September in which he didn’t make it to five innings in any of his outings and two of those he had a combined 14.14 ERA in seven innings. But to his credit, he did limit the Nationals to no runs on six hits in 4 2/3 before he was ejected for arguing a call on Sept. 18, his final start of the season.
There is the school of thought that Wood’s elongated motion — a severe all-body delivery in which he drops his arm extremely and violently whips it around — is better suited for a reliever role due to he deception it provides.
He was extremely effective in that spot, posting a 2.08 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 23 K’s to five walks in 21 2/3 innings, though the last we saw of him was a rocky 2 1/3 against the Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Dodgers. In the span of 11 fourth-inning pitches, he allowed a run-scoring triple to Hanley Ramirez, an RBI single by Yasiel Puig and a two-run home run via Juan Uribe.
While Wood’s September struggles as a starter did include teams that got a second look at him as a starter, with the Marlins and Phillies responsible for those back-to-back ugly pitching lines, he was better against the only other teams that he faced multiple times.
In his first start on June 18 against the Mets, Wood yielded one earned run on two hits in three innings. He followed that by giving up four runs and eight hits in 4 1/3 on July 25, then in six innings on Aug. 21, allowed one run on six hits in six innings.
Against the Nationals, Wood gave up one run on five hits Aug. 16 with a season-high nine strikeouts, and fanned three more in holding Washington scoreless before that September start was cut short.
Considering he had a .333 BABIP, which included a .371 average against left-handers — both well above the major-league average of .290-.300 — and still managed a 3.13 ERA overall, there is plenty of reason to believe any success he had last season was no fluke.
"You’re always trying to upgrade and get better," Wood said. "There’s always things you can do to better yourself and better your approach, especially from a pitching standpoint. You never want to be standing still."
Case in point: amid his surprising first months in the majors, Wood was at his most effective wielding a pitch he hadn’t fully become accustomed to throwing.
He threw his knuckle curve for a strike 41.9 percent of the time (by comparison his fastball was at 19.3 percent and his changeup 24.4) and it resulted in a .185 average for opposing batters (fastball: .269; changeup: .264). But the pitch, which he just picked up last spring from Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, resulted in him cutting the cuticle on his left index finger.
It ended his first start after three innings as he walked off the field with blood on his pants from trying to wipe it away. The finger became an issue again when he got his first win July 30 against the Rockies, though trainers were able to take care of it between innings.
Wood says it won’t be a problem again this season, altering his grip to minimize the friction the curveball creates.
"I’ve tweaked a few things," he said. "I’ve been playing with a few things since I started throwing, so I don’t think that will be an issue this year."
The Braves’ rotation is going to have a different feel this season, losing its most experienced arm and its vocal and emotional leader as Tim Hudson signed a two-year, $23 million deal with the Giants.
Even with Hudson, Atlanta had the third-youngest rotation in the National League last year at 27.2. Should the Braves open with a starting five of Medlen, Minor, Teheran, Beachy and Wood, that number will dip to 25.2. But while youth is being served, Wood believes there won’t be a lack of individuals to set the tone.
"There’s plenty of guys to choose from," he said. "Mike Minor came into his own last year … Kris Medlen, he’s been outstanding. Just talking to those guys, they’ve been around the block a few times, it’s great and it’s great learning from them."
Now, it’s just a matter of establishing some stability. A spot in the starting staff is there for the taking, though for how long remains to be seen.
Keeping him the bullpen, or at least moving him back when Floyd becomes available, could allow the Braves to slowly progress Wood’s workload. Wood threw 139 2/3 innings last season, just his second in the pros. Anything north of 150 would be surprising.
But for now, Wood is keeping his goals and his approach simple this spring.
"I’m excited to get out there and continue working to get better," he said.