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Alex Wood: Relief Ace?

Alex Wood is one of the Dodgers’ best pitchers, which is why they should move him to the bullpen in October.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Los Angeles Dodgers
Alex Wood has been excellent this season, and that excellence could serve the Dodgers better coming out of the bullpen this October.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Dodgers have been terrible lately, but don’t get it twisted; this is still the team with the best record in baseball that projects to be a force in the playoffs, recent run of poor play be damned. Despite their struggles, the Dodgers remain a near-lock to win the NL West and the heavy favorite for the number one seed in the National League.

But, come playoff time, the Dodgers will have some interesting decisions to make regarding how they shape their roster, the most important of which will how they setup their rotation. The Dodgers have an enviable number of quality starting pitchers, but the rotation depth also means that the Dodgers will have to decide which starters will move to the bullpen during the playoffs.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem like much of a question at all. The quartet of Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Alex Wood, and Rich Hill are the obvious favorites to start, which would in turn push Kenta Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu to the bullpen, with one of them perhaps off the playoff roster entirely.

Of course, if I simply tell you what’s obvious and nothing more, then this wouldn’t be much of a blog post. So instead, I’ll do the opposite and give you a take hot enough to burn your retinas:

The Dodgers should use Alex Wood out of the bullpen during the playoffs and use Kenta Maeda or Hyun-Jin Ryu as the fourth starter, depending on who is throwing better at the end of the month. Crazy? I disagree. And the wonderful thing about Beyond the Box Score is I am more or less required to give reasons for my assertions. So, here are the reasons why Alex Wood, playoff reliever makes sense.

Alex Wood has not pitched great lately.

Overall, Alex Wood has been excellent this year. He has a 2.81 ERA, which is supported by elite or near-elite strikeout, walk, and groundball rates. Unfortunately, Wood has not been so great lately. In his last two starts, covering 11 innings, he’s allowed nine runs, with nine strikeouts to six walks. His groundball rate in those two starts is just 38.9 percent, continuing a four-month trend of declining rates in that category.

Normally such a brief stretch can be written off as a small sample blip. But the downturn in performance coincides with Wood’s return from his second DL stint for shoulder issues.

It’s impossible to know from the outside if Wood’s shoulder is still bothering him. Regardless, the reality is that either Wood is in fact dealing with health issues or he is simply pitching more like the merely “good” pitcher he has been throughout his career as opposed to the superstar arm he appeared to be during the first half. Either way, betting on Wood to return to his first half from is far from a sure thing. Moving a starter to the bullpen is a little more palatable when the pitcher is more solid than elite.

Alex Wood is the most likely of the Dodger starters to excel in a bullpen role.

It seems like ages ago Wood was fighting for a starting rotation spot, but that was the case only back in March. One of the reasons Wood was not guaranteed a rotation spot is because he’s had success in the past pitching in relief. In his career, Wood has a 2.53 ERA as a reliever with a strikeout-minus-walk rate of over 20 percent and a groundball rate over 50 percent. A reliever with that profile would be one of the best in the game, a candidate to close or, if a team had, say, Kenley Jansen on its roster, pitch high-leverage setup innings in front of Jansen.

Compare that to Maeda and Ryu, who have thrown five and four career relief innings respectively, and Wood appears significantly more likely to make the smoothest transition to a playoff relief role.

Beyond just track record, evidence to suggests Wood can directly benefit from a move to the bullpen. This season Wood has been significantly better the first time he works through an order. In fact, Wood has been downright dominant the first time through:

First time through: 24.8 percent strikeout-minus-walk rate

Second time through: 14.6 percent

Third time through: 15.1 percent

In addition, transitioning back to the bullpen could help Wood find some of the fastball velocity he’s lost as the season has worn on. Here is the monthly average velocity of Wood’s bread-and-butter sinker this season, per Brooks Baseball:

April: 93.48 MPH

May: 93.15

June: 92.42

July: 91.91

August: 91.36

September: 91.59

Wood can absolutely be effective with his current velocity, and he absolutely can be effective facing hitters a second and third time. But Wood is at his best when he is facing hitters for the first time and when he is throwing his hardest. It’s quite possible using Wood out of the bullpen will allow him to maximize his velocity in short spurts, which could bring back the Alex Wood we saw earlier this season.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Arizona Diamondbacks
Alex Wood’s previous experience in a bullpen role makes him the Dodger starter best equipped to transition to a relief role in October.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers bullpen could use another quality arm.

The Dodgers bullpen is far from a disaster, but it is also far from bulletproof. Behind Kenley Jansen, the best Dodger reliever has probably been Brandon Morrow. Pedro Baez has struggled lately, and while Ross Stripling is solid, he’s more useful as a guy who can go multiple innings rather than a guy to turn to quell a rally. From the left side, the Dodgers have Luis Avilan and his 1.40 WHIP and trade deadline acquisitions Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani.

Again, it’s not a bad bullpen. But in an age when elite relievers are all the rage, the Dodgers feature just one guy who can be trusted without a second thought. And the lack of trust isn’t just speculative; we saw just last season that manager David Roberts would rather use Kenley Jansen in the seventh and Clayton Kershaw on one day of rest in the ninth rather than trust one of his other relievers.

If Dave Roberts didn’t trust his non-Jansen relievers last season, there’s no reason he’d all of a sudden trust the group this year, save for maybe Brandon Morrow, who really has been great this season. Adding a pitcher with all-star level qualifications should encourage Roberts to ease the burden on Jansen, and the fact that Wood is left-handed would give Roberts a better option against left-handed hitters than Avilan and the Lefties Tony.

Alex Wood can have an equally large impact relieving as he can starting.

Yes, Wood is plenty valuable as a starter, but the Dodgers do have other options to start. In a seven game series, the team would only need one of Maeda or Ryu to make one start, with Kershaw, Darvish, and Hill making two starts a piece (or someone going on short rest). The drop off from Wood to Maeda/Ryu is significant, but the upgrade from one of the Tony lefties to Wood is even greater.

It’s become somewhat passé to try picking out which pitcher can be a team’s Andrew Miller. But, if you’ll allow me this indulgence, I’ll posit that Alex Wood can be just that this postseason, or at least come pretty close. He’s got great stuff, he is tough on lefties and righties alike, and he has the ability to go multiple innings. There’s every reason to think that if Wood is moved to the bullpen he immediately becomes the Dodgers’ second-best reliever and a true weapon for David Roberts.

Will the Dodgers actually do this? Not a chance, unless injury forces the issue. Teams just don’t take Cy Young caliber pitchers out of the rotation when October comes around. But as pitcher usage patterns continue to change, the idea of moving a great starter into the bullpen for the playoffs shouldn’t seem so far-fetched.

All stats current as of September 14, 2017.


Jeremy Klein is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @papabearjere.