While much - well, essentially all - of the media hype regarding the Chicago Cubs has revolved around Kris Bryant and his "scorpion" of an agent's war of words with the organization, there's been a quiet battle taking place for the team's fifth starter gig. A strong front four that will feature the likes of Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks will be followed by one of Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson, or perhaps even Felix Doubront.
The field of candidates has dwindled a bit, as both Jacob Turner and Tsuyoshi Wada have experienced injuries throughout the spring. With the continued struggles of Edwin Jackson and Felix Doubront, the job looks ready to go to Travis Wood by default. It's not as if Wood hasn't earned the job to this point in the spring, though, as he attempts to rebound from a rough 2014 campaign.
After an All Star campaign in 2013, it was expected that Wood would experience a regression of some sort in the following season. Of course, few expected it to be as harsh as it was. The following represents the disparity between the two seasons:
There are some strange differences, but immediately we gain a bit of insight as to how Wood experienced the type of regression that he did. While his FIP indicated he wasn't quite as bad as it might appear otherwise, his increased walk rate and skyrocketing BABIP are certainly notable factors in his regression that took place in 2014.
Not much changed in terms of Wood's usage. His fastball and change (the latter of which had minimal usage) remained relatively constant, while he utilized a sinker more and a cutter less. His curveball saw a two percent increase in usage (up to 3.75 percent) but was still minuscule in terms of how much he actually threw it. The decline in cutter usage is notable, however, as it represented a primary out pitch for Wood and was something he had gradually come to rely on more before the usage percentage declined in 2014. Perhaps going back to utilizing that as a no. 2 pitch behind his four seamer is in the cards for Wood.
At the same time, while we can look at his usage in attempting to determine just what went wrong for him last year, it also wasn't entirely on Wood. A lot of it, though not all, just related to a bit of bad luck. He wasn't giving up harder contact. The line drive rate was just barely higher, and his flyball rate dropped. Overall, his hard hit average was just .153. He simply fell victim to the BABIP monster, as that figure alone jumped up almost 40 points.
This spring, though, Wood looks like a man who has turned it around. Say what you want about spring training, sample sizes, etc., Wood has pitched through 10 innings thus far in Arizona while walking just one hitter. He's allowed just a pair of earned runs over that span with eight punchouts. As he closes in on that final spot in the rotation, there are a lot of things working in Wood's favor.
For one, his opposing BABIP should approach a more reasonable level and sort itself out on its own. Additionally, his walk rate should also come down naturally. He's transitioning from primarily working with Welington Castillo, a decent enough defensive catcher, to mainly Miguel Montero and David Ross, who are both well known for their ability to frame pitches. That should help his walk rate on its own in addition to simple adjustments that Wood could make in terms of his usage.
The 2014 season wasn't a good one for Travis Wood. But it wasn't as awful as it might appear. He ran into a lot of bad luck. If the Cubs get the 2013 version of Travis Wood, he's a steal as a fifth starter and likely a guy that a lot of teams would take as high as a no. 3. This is certainly going to be an interesting development to watch as the season wears on, but if the improvement from Travis Wood comes as naturally as it probably should, he'll be sitting pretty for the upcoming 2015 campaign and will easily stand head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates for that no. 5 gig.
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.