The Dodgers’ rotation generates a lot of discussion, as well it should. It consists of the best pitcher on the planet (Clayton Kershaw), a young phenom (Julio Urias), an old phenom (Rich Hill), and a two-time Sawamura Award winner from Japan with one of the most unique contracts we’ve ever seen (Kenta Maeda). There are a lot of storylines and talent here, and that’s without mentioning veterans Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy. Los Angeles also has a bevy of young arms in Jose De Leon, Brock Stewart, and Ross Stripling.
With all of these options on the table, it’s easy to overlook Alex Wood. He battled an elbow injury for most of the second half of 2016 and came back for some relief appearances in September and October. It’s because of that injury and the team’s starting depth that people might omit him when spitballing about what the Dodgers’ 2017 rotation will look like. Here’s your reminder: don’t forget about Wood. He may be one of the best starters in the organization.
Let’s check out Wood’s numbers from the past three seasons:
The glaring difference in 2015 was a decrease in strikeout rate, but his walk rate remained relatively steady and his ground ball rate continued to decrease. The discrepancy in his FIP can mostly be attributed to his issues with the home run ball in the second half. Take a look at his monthly splits in that area from 2015:
The other, perhaps most important factor in his sub-par 2015 was that Wood played the second half with a bone bruise in his right foot. We didn’t learn about that injury until the following spring training. It happened after rolling his ankle in his last start with the Braves in July, prior to being traded to Los Angeles. While it’s hard to say for certain that the injury to his plant foot caused Wood’s troubles that year, his velocity dropped slightly and his curveball completely flattened out in the second half. There was almost certainly some correlation.
All that is to say that there was great hope that Wood could return to form in 2016 and early on in the season, he did just that. Every aspect of his arsenal in 2016 improved from where it was the previous season. First we see that his velocity was up across the board.
The sinker topped 90 mph for the first time since his rookie year in 2013. The change and curveball each saw increases as well, but found a little more separation between the two pitches than had been seen in the second half of 2015.
The uptick in velocity was great, especially for the sinker, but just as important was the improved vertical movement of Wood’s pitches.
He got more rise on the sinker, which sounds counterintuitive of course. Yet that’s a desirable trait for your hard pitch to possess, as it means it will not break downward with the severity that your off-speed and breaking pitches do, hopefully increasing the deceptiveness of your entire arsenal. While increasing the rise on his sinker and changeup, Wood also recaptured some of the drop on his curveball. In 2015 the vertical movement of his changeup and curveball drifted towards each other, but in 2016 he was able to recapture three distinct planes of movement for his three pitch types.
Lastly, in 2016 Wood seemed to reclaim his previous release points, which no doubt correlates to the improved vertical movement.
The release points looked to slip a little bit when he came back from injury in a relief role, so that will be something to keep an eye on early on in the 2017 season.
Before his elbow injury in late May, it looked like Wood had found the magic from his pre-bone bruise days in Atlanta. Now, the phrase “elbow injury” rightfully evokes fear when mentioned in regards to a pitcher, but it seems that Wood and the Dodgers were lucky in that all that was required in this instance was an elbow debridement; an outpatient procedure that clears damaged tissue from the elbow.
Wood’s ability to return to pitch for the Dodgers late in the season, even pitching well enough to be added to the team’s NLCS roster, would seem to indicate that this particular elbow issue is behind him for now. Of course, pitchers are inherently fragile and we can’t predict what will happen, but he ended 2016 healthy and that’s important.
The caveat “when healthy” is necessary as he’s coming off a year of only 60 innings pitched. That said, when healthy Alex Wood is absolutely one of the Dodgers’ best five starting pitchers. It’s easy to forget about him with all the other options they have, but as someone who’s just now entering his first year of arbitration at age 25, he is an important part of the both the current and future iterations of the Dodgers.
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Chris Anders is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.