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Alex Wood: Atlanta's annoyingly secret weapon

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The young left-hander has been Atlanta's best starting pitcher this year, but no one else seems to know. How has he achieved his success?

Should Atlanta advance, they'll likely lean on Wood.
Should Atlanta advance, they'll likely lean on Wood.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves have had, overall, a pretty solid season. After winning yesterday (more on that in a moment), they possess a record of 72-65, good enough for second place in the NL East — a distinction for which the Marlins, Mets, and Phillies would probably kill. With that said, "pretty solid" and "good enough" don't get a team to October; and while the Braves certainly haven't played terribly this year, they have almost no shot at winning their division. Or, to be precise, they have a 1.8% chance of winning their division, as they most likely won't overcome the Nationals' commanding six-game lead.

If the Braves do squeak their way in, it'll be as a wild card, and probably the second — FanGraphs gives the Giants the greatest odds of nabbing the first. This means that, in order to advance, the Braves would have to win in AT&T Park against arguably one of the best pitchers in baseball in Madison Bumgarner.

To whom would the Braves give the ball in this game? They could choose Julio Teheranwhose lucky start has given him a 2.90 ERA in 189.0 innings. They could opt for Ervin "Magic" Santana, who has ridden a shiny new changeup to a 3.53 ERA in 168.1 innings. Or maybe, in this hypothetical high-pressure situation, they'd want a reliable veteran, a role that Aaron Harang (and his 3.64 ERA in 173.0 innings) would capably fill.

None of these men would be the right choice. Atlanta's best starter in 2014 has been neither Teheran, Santana, nor Harang, but Alex Wood, who — following a dominant, 12-strikeout performance in yesterday's 1-0 win — bests all his cohorts in advanced metrics:

Player xFIP SIERA
Alex Wood 3.26 3.25
Ervin Santana 3.43 3.42
Julio Teheran 3.77 3.67
Aaron Harang 4.18 4.35

This seems rather surprising. Wood never made a top prospect list, and while he turned some heads last year in limited action, he still largely flew under the radar. Even so, we should look deeper, into what has made him into a near-ace.

In 20 starts this year, Wood has fanned a magnificent 23.8% of the batters he's faced. At 6.2%, his free pass clip isn't quite as spectacular, but still notably above-average, as is his 46.1% ground ball rate. The former two numbers have handy regression equations, courtesy of Mike Podhorzer, to tell us if they've come as the result of good fortune. In Wood's case, he has performed better than expected a bit as a starter, with expected strikeout and walk rates of 21.7% and 7.4%, respectively; nevertheless, he still tops his teammates in that regard.

Aside from stripping away luck, those formulas also tell us how a pitcher has put up his numbers. While Wood has satisfactory strike and foul-strike rates, he has accrued his punchouts chiefly via a 29.5% L/Str, meaning that a lot of his strikes have been of the called variety. PITCHf/x supports this thesis too — among 122 starting pitchers with at least 100 innings, his 59.7% Z-Swing% ranks a decent 22nd.

One of Wood's pitches in particular has been adept at catching hitters looking; it's also a pitch that has grown in popularity as of late. I speak of the knuckle-curve, which he has thrown 21.7% of the time in his starts, and which has resulted in a looking strike 34.9%* of the time. In no small part because of its ability to garner backward Ks, Wood's knuckle-curve ranks third in the majors in efficacy.

It's easy to see how it has deceived hitters: Its horizontal break goes in the opposite direction as most curves. In the aforementioned study, Dan Rozenson found that the average knuckle-curve moves 2.43 feet to the right. Compare that to Wood's, which shifts 3.2 feet to the left the lowest mark in baseball. Coupled with its ordinary vertical drop (5.2 feet, as opposed to 5.61 feet for all knuckle-curves), this horizontal movement gives it the sneakiness it needs to fool the opposing team.

Perhaps, if Wood's knuckle-curve works so nicely, he should use it more often? That probably wouldn't serve him well. As I noted above, his Str% (the percentage of all pitches that are strikes) and his F/Str% (the percentage of all strikes that are fouls) also come in over the MLB averages. And while his knuckle-curve is superior to his four-seam fastball and changeup in terms of looking strikes, his changeup has a much lower rate of balls (32.6%)*, and his four-seamer reigns supreme in foul rate (19.3%)* . Indeed, his blend of pitches seems to have attained a harmony of sorts, and the outcome couldn't be much better.

*These stats are out of all his appearances, since Brooks Baseball doesn't split up starter and reliever performance.

As we enter the season's final month, the Braves — like all teams — will have to answer some tough questions. Mainly, who will carry them to (and through) a tough postseason series? If they're smart, they'll come to the same conclusion I did: Wood is the way to go.

. . .

All data courtesy of FanGraphsBaseball-Reference, and Brooks Baseball, as of Monday, September 1st, 2014.

Ryan Romano is a featured contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.