Normally this early in Spring Training, most news stories aren’t actually all that important. Somebody’s in the best shape of his life, somebody else is fat, and Josh Collmenter is lecturing his teammates on physics for some reason. However, this recent piece on Alex Wood by new LA Times beat writer Andy McCullough does reveal some important information: Wood has spent his whole Dodger career playing with a bone bruise in his foot:
Back in July, the Dodgers acquired a pitcher with a compromised delivery. In his final start as a Brave, Wood rolled his right ankle on a play covering first base. A bone bruise developed in his foot, which stung with each landing.
You don’t need to be a mechanics expert to know that adding pain on every foot strike is going to screw things up. The article goes on to explain that Rick Honeycutt was trying to implement some tweaks to Wood’s delivery, but the changes were unable to stick due to the pain Wood was dealing with.
Whenever a player has mechanics as strange as Wood’s, the delivery is going to be the first thing people point to as the root cause of problems. Wood’s delivery looks very physically strenuous, and he has the lowest arm slot of any left-handed starting pitcher in all of MLB. Pitching coaches have probably been trying to adjust that delivery for as long as Alex Wood has been pitching, so it’s not really surprising that the Dodgers were trying to implement changes of their own.
Indeed, when the Dodgers acquired Wood, I identified his arm slot as a potential cause for the big drop in strikeouts he saw last season. The arm slot has been dropping lower and lower, which made him more susceptible to getting hit hard by right-handed batters. The strikeout trend seemed to move in the correct direction in Wood’s first few starts as a Dodger (thanks in part to Yasmani Grandal‘s framing of Wood’s frequent called strikes), but things quickly trailed off after that. Wood finished his Dodger season with a lower strikeout rate than he had earlier in the year in Atlanta, with basically the same arm slot he had before. Wood’s results followed the drop in strikeouts: his 116 ERA- and 106 FIP- in blue were well below his career standards.
This news is strangely comforting in a way. Obviously it’s never good to see a pitcher throw through pain, but it’s an easily-explainable piece of the underperformance puzzle. It probably isn’t the only answer, and maybe not even the biggest answer, but when a player has a style as unorthodox as Wood anything involuntary that happens to his mechanics could cause performance to suffer.
Even without this information, Wood was a good bounce-back candidate. As often as his declining performance gets cited, he’s still a 25 year old left-handed pitcher with two and a half seasons pitching above the league average under his belt. It seems like the expectations for him this season are far below his career normal rates, which isn’t very reasonable considering how he got to the place he is now.
With reports of Hyun-jin Ryu being a few weeks behind the other pitchers, it looks like Wood will have a very good chance of breaking camp as a starter. An extended run in the bullpen, frankly, seems like a waste of his abilities. Odds were never strong that all six pitchers would make it out of camp ready to go anyways, so Wood will have a chance to test out Honeycutt’s suggested mechanical tweaks without the foot pain to screw things up. It also adds a reason to watch his spring starts closely, even if the results themselves won’t necessarily be important.