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Alex Wood, the Dodgers’ new ace

Clayton Kershaw hasn’t been himself this season, but Alex Wood has stepped into a top-of-the-rotation role.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Since Zack Greinke departed after the 2015 season and signed with the Diamondbacks, the Dodgers have been searching for a top-of-the-rotation pitcher to slot in behind Clayton Kershaw. While different pitchers have stepped into the role for short periods of time, none of them have been able to stick in the longterm. Alex Wood may just be able to do that.

When Wood was traded to Los Angeles in 2015, he looked like he was on a downward path to mediocrity, at best. His velocity was dipping, his ERA rising, and he was striking batters at out a career-low rate. It was those disappointing numbers that led many to believe the Dodgers made a mistake in trading for him. But after the 2015 season, Wood set out to fix whatever damage had been done from the second half of 2014 into the entirety of the next season.

Mechanical changes have become sort of a catch-all for when a pitcher or hitter sees either a drastic improvement or completely falls of the map (a la Jake Arrieta). Sometimes it’s a guess based on film, or simply on nothing but gut feel. Other times it’s a change that the player openly discusses. The latter was the case for Alex Wood in the winter between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, which was reported on by the Los Angeles Daily News.

Better velocity was the first thing to change for Wood, seeing the average speed of each of his three main pitches rise from 2015 to 2016. The fastball went from a paltry 89.8 mph average in 2015 to 91.4 mph the following season. Similar changes were seen in the changeup and curveball. But the tangible, run-preventing results didn’t follow: he finished the season with a 3.73 ERA and 3.18 FIP while pitching just above 60 innings on the season. That low inning count was due to injury and a move to the bullpen upon his return. There were signs of something good to come, but injuries and lack of reliability got in the way.

Fast forward to the 2017 season and Alex Wood has already surpassed his innings total from a season ago. Sure, there’s room for concern about that; after all, he went on the disabled list with elbow soreness in 2016, and has already made a trip to the DL this season with inflammation in the elbow. However, the 2017 injury is likely to be more precaution than actual danger.

And so far, he’s stayed on the mound, and been outstanding. He’s pitched nearly 62 innings with a 1.90 ERA. His FIP of 2.14 and 2.44 DRA suggest that his run prevention skills aren’t going to crumble in the near future. That alone puts him not only at the top of the Dodgers rotation but among the best pitchers in baseball. The improvement is good to see, as it leads to wins, but the more interesting part is how Wood got there.

Not only did Wood see upticks in velocity from 2015 to 2016, he also saw them from 2016 to 2017. His average fastball velocity now sits at a much more respectable 93.2 mph. His curveball and changeup have both seen similar rises. That has led to a 4.1 percentage point increase on his whiff rate with the sinker, and a 1.6 percentage point increase in whiff rate from the curveball.

Alex Wood Swing Rates

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing%
O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing%
2016 27.4% 59.1% 42.2%
2017 37.6% 58.3% 47.0%
Data via Fangraphs

It hasn’t just been an increase in velocity that has helped Wood, though. He’s getting more swings overall, but especially on pitches that are outside of the zone. Perhaps this is a place where hitters can adjust to Wood’s new approach, but he’s living on the corners so exceptionally well that it leaves the batter without much of a choice. His better command can also be seen through his career-low 0.92 WHIP and 6.2 percent walk rate.

The increase in swings, whiffs, and velocity combined with much improved command would already be enough to push Wood towards the top of the Dodgers rotation. What has aided in his ascension even more is his ability to limit the damage when hitters do actually put the bat on the ball. He has the best ground ball percentage in the National League, at 66.9 percent. Just in case that also wasn’t enough, he’s been nicely keeping fly balls in the park with a HR/FB percentage of just 6.9 percent while the rest of the league struggles mightily in that area. That has helped him rise to the top of the National League leaderboards in HR/9, at just 0.25.

If there was theoretically a checklist of things a starting pitcher could do to rise from mediocre to top-of-the-rotation talent, Alex Wood would have checked every box. He made mechanical changes, increased velocity, improved command, generated more swings and whiffs, induced ground balls, and kept fly balls in the park. He has almost literally done it all on his way to being one of the best pitchers in the National League this season.

Some of that may not be sustainable. His BABIP allowed sits at .268, which isn’t outrageously low but is also below both the league average and his career average. His home run to fly ball ratio is nice, but it’s 6.9 percentage points under the league average this season. So, yes, there is probably a small amount of regression coming. And yes, he has been injury prone and has already risen above his innings count from a year ago. There are concerns.

In the grand scheme of things, however, Alex Wood has taken all the right steps to becoming a key part of the Dodgers rotation. It’s not some flukey run with a low ERA. He has made changes in every facet of the game, turning himself into one of the best pitchers in the National League right now. If he can continue to perform at his current level, the Dodgers may have finally found a reliable non-Kershaw starter.

Ryan Schultz is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at BP Southside and BP Wrigleyville. Follow him on twitter @rschultzy20