Under The Hood: Travis Wood


Cubs baseball has been painful to watch in the early goings of the season.

While this was far from unexpected, the 2013 Cubs have managed to squeak out a few high points so far with much work left to be done pre-deadline. Most notable so far would be the success of Travis Wood on the mound, who has been surprising opposition batters and Cubs fans alike all year.

Wood, if you may not remember, had been acquired in Sean Marshall deal that saw Dave Sappelt sent to Chicago from Cincinnati. The deal was hardly a blockbuster but had some serious implications in the “mass prospect acquiring” frenzy that the Cubs brass went on in 2012.

Turns out the deal was a pretty good one.

Wood, the only Cubs representative in the 2013 All-Star game, has been quietly going about his business collecting Ws and has provided the Cubs with countless quality starts, some of which have have sadly been converted in to losses.

But what is that makes Wood so effective? He seldom lights up the radar gun and in a better lineup, could have been saturated and overshadowed by an influx of talent.

Luckily this is “Under The Hood” and with the help of BrooksBaseball.net, we have some interesting raw data that can help paint a picture of Wood’s success. (Keep in mind, I’m not a professional scout – simply a baseball nerd.)

Lets take a gander at some of the raw data from 2012 for comparison’s sake:

Wood tossed 156 innings for the Cubs with an abysmal 6-13 record, much of which shouldn’t go against his credit because the Cubs were a very very bad baseball team. His 4.27 ERA and 4.84 FIP also indicated that Wood struggled at times last year, having his velocity fluctuate and posted a relatively low 6.87 K/9.

Needless to say, it was a tough year for Wood but his moments of brilliance shined through despite what the statistical data said.

Compared to 2013, Wood has pitched 110 and a third inning so far, which puts him in to a comparable sample frame from 2012. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch considering he’s faced 216 fewer batters and  started 9 fewer games this season, but there’s a strong link between these condensed metrics and the effectiveness of Wood’s game. His ERA is down to 2.69 and his FIP is a steady 3.51 – all good signs of Wood’s improvement.

Jul 4, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Travis Wood (37) pitches the ball against the Oakland Athletics during the sixth inning at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

In short, he’s using fewer pitches and making more productive outs. He’s becoming a smarter pitcher.

Because Wood won’t be blowing fastballs by batters, he’s adjusted his approach to be a contact style pitcher. Put the ball in the zone and let the defense put together some clean innings. Relying predominantly on his 4-seam (90 mph), cutter (88 mph) and sinker (89 mph) . He also throws a change-up and a curve but these are often omitted from his mix.

What does this tell us about Wood? Naturally his pitches will have more movement because of the relatively low velocity which puts him in the running for the title of “crafty lefty.” These pitch speeds compliment each other well considering that the fastball is only slightly faster than his 2 other go-to piches – the cutter and the sinker. If a batter cannot decipher which pitch is coming in, he cannot make an educated guess at the movement of the ball and thus has a higher chance at whiffing.

What’s neat about this is Wood’s release points. The difference between his 3 key pitches (4-seam, cutter, sinker) is negligible at best, which helps mask the pitch type as it’s leaving the pitcher’s hand. Most pitchers try and do this as it is one of the fundamentals of pitching and keeps batters off balance more effectively.

However there’s been a sharp change in Wood’s delivery in 2013: his release points are getting higher. Take a look at this chart:

The jump in release height from April to May is substantial and many of his pitches have regressed since then, but are still higher than their original point at the beggining of the 2013 season. This is a clear indication of Wood making at an attempt at a “fuller” delivery, where his arm slot comes up over the shoulder as opposed to a “3/4” delivery, where the ball is released more from the elbow than the shoulder. The only pitch that deviates from this trend is the changeup, which considering the anatomy of the pitch itself, is more effective when delivered low for more sink.

This is also evidence of pitching coach Chris Bosio tooling with his players and Wood’s willingness to make adjustments – a key factor in the success of any ball player.

Regardless of pitch mix, mechanics and release points, pitchers still need to throw strikes. How have all these adjustments affected the way Wood approaches batters? Turns out Wood is regimented and stays true to his style. Have a look at the hot spots vs righties.

Looking at the zone from the catchers perspective, it’s clear that Wood likes to work away, or extremely low and in on righties. This strategy works well considering the movement on his pitches and the fact that he’s a left handed pitcher. It limits his ability to throw harder breaking pitches like his slider, but keeps his cutter in play. In all “red hot” zones vs righties, Wood’s whiff rate is over 17%, showing that batters are liking the look of the pitch, but the ball breaks away from the bat at the last second. This leaves batter missing early and late on multiple occasions.

Simple, yet effective.

You’ll notice that Wood never puts the ball in the prototypical “wheelhouse” of a lot of right handed batters. Anything low and away or up on the hands is seldom seen from Wood, and this factors in to his solid 0.65 HR/9.

Now, lets look at Wood vs Lefties:

Whoa. This is a very different picture compared to Wood vs righties. The vast majority of pitches are low and away once again but the concentration is significantly higher in this case. Wood is using his offspeed mix much more in these cases and the lefty vs lefty match up forces the batter to look at arcing pitches that glance the strike zone and end up outside. It’s a seamless strategy as long as you don’t hang any pitches, but it’s been working beautifully for Wood as indicated by his obscene 31+% whiff rate on balls low and away.

Worth noting is that Wood uses his 4-seam as a K pitch more often than not, and tends to throw it up in the zone vs lefties. After seen a few cutters sink out of the far part of the plate, as a batter, I wouldn’t want to start swinging at high heat. This is the type of stuff that batters have nightmares about.

There is an abundance of data that we could analyse to death, but these metrics offer the best picture of how Wood has been dominating all season.

Overall, Wood is able to channel his strength with a smart pitch selection and effective placement. This is what makes him an all-star in 2013.