As the second biggest piece in our only big headline deal this Hot Stove Season, New Cincinnati Red Alex Wood is, on paper, a pretty good get for his new team.
Cincy is a rebuilding team that needs pitching, and he’s a youngish pitcher with a couple years of control. He’s been solid too, posting a 3.20 ERA and 3.43 FIP with a 50.9 percent ground ball rate over 304 innings the last two years. Considering the rotation Wood will be getting slotted into, he’s probably the ace of the staff by default. It all sounds great, right? A match made in heaven.
Then there’s this:
Over the last year or so, we’ve watched as Wood’s velo on his sinker - his main pitch - has tanked, as his Hard Hit Rate (batted balls over 95 mph) has shot up like Apple stock. If I were the Reds, this would trouble me. This of course deserves some context, which relates to the one real knock on Wood - the injury issues that have cropped up the past couple years. Between that and the sheer talent in that rotation, he was never really going to get a strong chance to start consistently in Los Angeles. So in that respect the trade was good for him, and good for the Reds if he does bounce back. Trouble is, it’s shoulder issues that have kept him off the mound. Any time you hear shoulder issues with a pitcher, you can’t help but get concerned.
Which of course is why he was the second piece in the deal, or third depending on how you feel about Matt Kemp or salary dumps. But the quotes coming from the Reds all suggest he should be in the rotation, and even somewhere near the top. Which is great, any team needs good pitching, the Reds more than anyone. The big worry is whether the Reds think they’re getting 2017 version or 2018 version. He was solid last year, 3.53 FIP in 151.2 innings, but that’s not exactly “top of the rotation starter” material, right?
More than anything, I wonder about his sinker usage, for two reasons. First, Wood has really backed off on it the last year or two, trying to fold his slurve and changeup into the mix to become a more rounded pitcher:
A starting pitcher needs to have more than one pitch of course, and Wood was making efforts to be a well-rounded pitcher, and for a lefty the change is vital when facing right-handed pitching. But the other issue is that when he’s been throwing the sinker, he’s not locating it where it should be. His sinker heat map in 2017 is what you want:
And then this year:
It’s not rocket science - he got hit harder this year not just because of the loss in velocity, but because he was throwing sinkers more in the middle of the zone. So maybe it makes sense that he is backing off his sinker, since it’s not working. But it’s still his bread-and-butter pitch. It’s still important. If it’s not working for him he’s not going to be an effective pitcher in any role. And for at least 2018, it hasn’t been working like it should. It makes him eminently hittable.
So what we have is a starter who can’t handle a full workload, whose pitches are fading a bit. That sound bad when you just compress it into a single sentence. The Reds are still a couple years away from contending, with top prospect Nick Senzel just now getting to the point where a call-up may be imminent and everyone in the division but but the Pirates the midst of their own window. It’s more than likely they just want Wood to eat innings, and hopefully be good enough to be a be a back end guy once their own window opens up.
But why not be novel? The age of five starters is coming to an end. In a decade’s time we’re going to see a few uber-aces roaming the land with a bunch of multi-inning guys tossing gas out of the bullpen and starts lasting three or four innings. That doesn’t quite describe Wood, but he could be a bridge to an interesting new future. The entirety of the Reds staff is little more than third or fourth starters anyway.
In 2018 Cincinnati ranked 26th in baseball with a 4.2 fWAR. Wood could double that he’s his best self, or even just add 50 percent of that if he is his 2018 self. It’s a little silly, but if they bullpen full bore they get less exposure to hitters by only seeing them once or twice, and would probably find more success rate-wise. It’s not like they have a nice base to build off of anyway - the team isn’t good at all right now. Not until some prospects grow up a bit. There’s room for some creative/reckless thinking here.
The Reds plainly aren’t the Rays. Their management isn’t quite so stuck in a cashless hell and it’s not necessary for them to get weird to obtain wins. But as good as Alex Wood was in the past, with his injury history and that velo drop he’s probably not going to be a top of the rotation pitcher in the long haul.
The Reds are in a division with some of the most forward-thinking and creative front offices in the game. They need to think ahead of the curve to really compete. As alienating as going full-on bullpen would be to the traditionalists across southern Ohio, it’s not often you get to have the chance to have a stacked farm system and still be waiting for the beginning of a window. Wood and the rest of their middling pitching could be that chance. They’ve got very little invested in him and can be as odd with his usage as they like.
Or he could just eat a bunch of innings and help get them to 75 or 80 wins, and do what’s normal and expected.. either works, but one is more exciting.
Merritt Rohlfing writes a lot about the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe, focuses too much on the intricacies of baseball at Beyond the Box Score, and finds his way elsewhere on the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch. Email him at email@example.com if you want.